PM, Rivals Gamble In High Stakes Game

Posted on Monday, March 22 at 09:56 by Janet M Eaton

Travers: PM, rivals gamble in high stakes game

Published On Sat Mar 20, 2010

By James Travers
National Affairs Columnist

 This capital is humming the pop wisdom of the Kenny Rogers song "The
Gambler." Three times this week Stephen Harper folded, once on
loathsome junk mail flyers, a second time on foreign aid funding for
contraception and a third on public library Internet access.

Now the Prime Minister faces a tougher decision: to hold his Afghan
torture cards, or walk away from a charged test of wills with

Buoyed by those small victories over Conservatives, usually timid
opposition MPs are taking their chances on a daring bluff. They are
asking Peter Milliken, the Commons Speaker, to rule that fundamental
democratic rights are being trampled by Harper's refusal to release
documents believed to hold the secrets of who knew what about Afghan
prisoner abuse.

Even for political poker, the stakes are high. If Milliken agrees,
and the Prime Minister holds, MPs say they will censure the
government and find three senior ministers in contempt.

Calling an election - one that could reward Conservatives for bad
behaviour, and Liberals in particular aren't ready to fight - is an
appropriate way out. Voters would decide if Harper is hiding behind
the troops and national security to save his political skin or if
rivals are playing politics with prisoner abuse and the defining
principle that the Prime Minister is accountable to Parliament.

Meanwhile, dangers rise. Far from fading, as Conservatives hope,
questions about what was known inside federal power circles are
narrowing from general to specific. Originally centred on reports of
Afghans abusing Afghans, the crosshairs are shifting to Canadian
special forces and intelligence operations.

Apart from strengthening otherwise suspect government claims that
releasing the documents would damage national interests, the new
focus is awkward for Harper. It elevates the controversy from
allegations that blind eyes were turned to what was happening in
notorious Afghan prisons to growing evidence that Joint Task Force
Two and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service were directly
involved in targeting and interrogating Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders,
some of whom "disappeared."

Even if morality, international law and what inevitably happens in
the fog of war are put aside, engagement in clandestine operations
creates a higher order of political problem.

It draws Conservatives, along with predecessor Liberals, closer to
the discredited George W. Bush War on Terrorism methods that
Canadians instantly identify with Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib

Adding more complexity and intrigue is this week's move by Stanley
McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander, to impose more control
on elite, unconventional forces. Canada's super-secretive troops work
seamlessly with counterpart American forces in Afghanistan and, in a
uniquely direct chain of command, report here to the chief of defence

A judicial inquiry offers optimum balance between safeguarding
national interests and finding out what Rick Hillier and successor
Gen. Walter Natynczyk knew about those operations and what they told
their political masters. Proven by the Maher Arar probe, seasoned
jurists are best qualified to shine light into dark corners without
over-exposing national security.

Harper is trying to create the illusion of an inquiry without its
discipline or transparency by hiring respected former Supreme Court
justice Frank Iacobucci to review the files.

No Prime Minister willingly cedes control of an explosive issue,
particularly when trying to time an election to best advantage. But
his opponents are correctly dismissing Iacobucci's appointment as a
delaying tactic and are playing the accountability card.

Hold, fold, walk or run away, the bets are hitting the table. Let the
chips fall where they may.

James Travers' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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  1. by RickW
    Sun Mar 28, 2010 5:19 am ... ml?ref=rss
    The Canadian public seems to be somewhat apathetic over the "detainee" issue. And that plays right into Harper's hands - especially with the (perceived) internal divisiveness in Liberal Party ranks.

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