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PM gags staff to curb Afghan scandal

Stephen Harper’s sudden conversion to ministerial accountability would be refreshing if it weren’t so sinister.

OTTAWA — Stephen Harper’s sudden conversion to ministerial accountability would be refreshing if it weren’t so sinister.

Silencing political staff tightens the screws on an administration already consumed with managing its message and adds an essential layer of secrecy to the cover-up of Afghanistan prisoner abuse.

Last week’s refusal of the prime minister’s communications director to testify to a Parliamentary committee makes a dotted-line connection to the continuing government effort to hide what ministers and generals knew about Canadian detainees mistreated by Afghanistan soldiers and police.

While the Commons ethics committee wants to question Dimitri Soudas about political interference in blocking Access to Information requests, his powerful predecessor in the Prime Minister’s Office, Sandra Buckler, is a richer prize for opposition parties trying to follow the detainee document paper trail.

Multiple sources say Buckler controlled a May 4, 2007 statement by Walt Natynczyk, then the vice chief of defence staff and now the country’s top soldier, saying there had been no specific abuse complaints.

Buckler, now Trade Minister Peter Van Loan’s chief of staff, and Natynczyk aren’t answering questions, but the statement was remarkably consistent with the Conservative stonewall defence and at obvious odds with other available evidence.

Quickly forgotten, the press release returned to haunt the government last December when Natynczyk recanted it along with his day-old testimony to the Commons defence committee that an Afghan beaten in a 2006 incident had been captured by Afghans, not Canadians.

That reversal gutted Conservative claims that no Canadian prisoners had been mistreated and led to an internal military inquiry into why such hyper-sensitive information hadn’t risen up the command chain.

Last month, the inquiry blamed that failure on confusion over detainee reporting procedures.

But what’s never been explored or explained is how and why Natynczyk released a statement so inconsistent with what was known.

On May 1, just three days before publication of the PMO-massaged statement, the senior officer responsible for Canadian expeditionary operations in Afghanistan filed a revealing affidavit in a high-profile civil liberties court case.

Steven Noonan not only detailed the beating that ultimately forced Natynczyk’s hasty flip-flop, he also revealed another 2006 incident involving Canadian troops recovering one of their prisoners to prevent murder.

None of that should have surprised generals, ministers, mandarins or the Prime Minister’s top aides.

Almost a year before Natynczyk’s curiously categorical declaration, diplomat Richard Colvin reported in Afghanistan dispatches that the International Red Cross was worried about Canada’s handling of prisoners, as well as by torture behind prison walls.

Among many warnings, Colvin waved red flags about Canadian detainees who disappeared.

That raised concerns that insurgent leaders captured by Canadian special forces had been either killed or sent for interrogation to secret American “black site” jails.

Despite those warnings, the Harper government clung to unsustainable claims of no “specific” evidence of prisoner abuse.

That yarn is roughly as convincing as the prime minister’s fresh commitment to the worn principle that cabinet ministers are democratically accountable and speak for staff.

Harper’s timely course change is revealing.

With ministerial staff accused of tampering with the public right to know, with the dispute over Parliament’s access to detainee documents still unresolved, a ruling party that once saved ministers by sacrificing underlings is now standing between them and unwelcome investigations.

Time alone will tell if Harper’s conversion is principled or tactical.

Meanwhile, Parliament has a responsibility as well as the authority to pursue the truth and Canadians need to hear directly what Soudas, Buckler and Natynczyk did for their political masters, and why.

James Travers is a syndicated columnist for The Toronto Star.