Why isn't this an election issue?

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Cross-posted to the BlogsCanada E-Group Election Blog

Today's Globe and Mail has an update on the public inquiry into the detention of Maher Arar and his subsequent deportation to Syria for "questioning". Government lawyers have submitted a position paper arguing that much of the proceeding should be kept hidden from public view to avoid a loss of confidence in CSIS and the RCMP on the part of foreign governments.

This would be especially true if these agencies are forced to talk about their investigative techniques, ongoing probes and international information-sharing agreements, they say.

They argue that Canada could find itself shut out of the global intelligence-gathering loop, or even face trade sanctions, if it gains a reputation as an intelligence blabbermouth.

The paper's authors say that terrorist groups may try to watch the open portions of the proceedings to find out the identities of police officers, spies and confidential informants.


Certainly Justice Dennis O'Connor has his work cut out for him in deciding how much information should be made public, but personally I'm hoping he errs on the side of openness rather than secrecy. I think the confidence of foreign governments in these agencies is of secondary importance to our own confidence in agencies which act in our name and should ultimately be accountable to us.

The article presents both sides of the debate:

Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin said the government stance not only jeopardizes the whole inquiry but may have further repercussions.

The freedom-of-information expert said he fears the government plans to make the position paper its new "bible," so as to increase secrecy all around.

"No official government pronouncement has gone this far before and done it so emphatically," Mr. Rubin said in a written riposte.

Yet the public interest in having an open commission is far outweighed by the public interest in being kept safe from terrorists and other threats, according to lead government lawyer Barbara McIsaac.


I'd like to remind Ms. McIsaac that she's just used the word "public" not once, but twice. And the public is us. As far as I can recall, no one has asked the public to weigh in on the balance we'd like to see between safety and secrecy.

In a post a couple of days ago called Questions for the Leaders Ian Welsh touched on Bill C-7, a piece of legislation which would give cabinet ministers unprecedented authority to suspend due process and do it in a way that would leave them unaccountable by virtue of the simple act of stamping Top Secret on the file in question. I don't recall a lot of public debate on the matter yet according to the Library of Parliament that bill received Royal Assent on May 6th, though it's not yet in force. Do you recall being asked for your opinion on the matter? Isn't an election campaign the perfect opportunity to be asked?

I'm not surprised when law enforcement agencies favour measures which make their jobs easier. I expect them to have to be reminded regularly that in a free society their jobs aren't supposed to be that easy. That's what due process is all about. I understand their desire to protect their information sharing agreements and I don't think it's necessary for us to know all the nuts and bolts of it. But I'd like to know in general terms what information we're sharing and with whom. Again, it's being done in my name and may well be my information.

And while I'm not happy about it, I'm not surprised that the Liberals aren't raising the issue in the current campaign. They've already decided on their course of action and it's obvious that they'd rather not talk about it. The only Liberal statement regarding terrorism so far was yesterday's assurance from Martin and McLellan that everything's okay, there's nothing to worry about.

But I'm disappointed that this issue doesn't seem to be on the radar for any of the opposition parties, except for Harper's request that in light of current security concerns we refrain from any mention of the United States which might be seen as negative. And I'm disappointed as well that the media would rather look for opportunities to express mock outrage than to focus attention on issues that the politicians have overlooked.

I may be in the minority here. It's quite possible that most people don't feel as strongly as I do that as much of the Arar inquiry as possible should be out in the open. It's also possible that the majority of people don't feel as strongly as I do that Bill C-7 is bad legislation. But if we don't talk about it how will we, or our politicians, know what the majority thinks?

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3 Comments

pogge,

For what it's worth,I am 100%in agreement with you here. Unfortunately, if anyone is going to make noise about this it's the NDP, since the Conservatives were howling for Arar's head before it became known he was cleared.
What I'd like to see debated is the whole idea that the prevention of terrorist attacks like those in the U.S require the public to "give up" certain freedoms. As is becoming clear from the Richard Clarke revelations, as well as earlier stuff from the FBI, the problem in the summer before the attacks was that the folks at the top (Rice, Cheney, Bush, Ashcroft) weren't paying attention, and didn't let the folks on the ground do their jobs.
It seems to me that in order to prevent terrorism, what we need is competent leadership, not more secrecy.

Hi -- good post -- I'm going to do a blog on this, based on your post.

I'm torn on the issue. The intelligence that led to Arar's arrest was at least partially credible, if I understand things correctly. Releasing viable intelligence to the general public when the information may be a part of other ongoing investigations into terrorist activities would be sheer silliness.

However - I understand the desire to know how everything went so horribly wrong for Arar, and to see justice done.

It's a sticky situation with no clear "right" choice.

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