Wednesday, February 07, 2007

More spinning than a figure skating competition

The "detainee abuse" story is getting a pile of press these days. And like it or not, a lot of what you're seeing reported in the press is seriously spun.

Let's start with the good professor of law who sparked this whole shitstorm in the first place: Amir Attaran. I watched this fellow speak on CPAC last night, and like any good lawyer, he tried to appear the concerned but reasonable advocate for those without a voice: the detainees in Afghanistan. It was enough to bring a tear to a glass eye.

The problem is that when you peel back the thin veneer of his purported respect for the CF, Attaran's agenda positively leaps out. While he mouthed fine words to the effect that he doesn't oppose the mission and hopes the allegations prove untrue, he went on to say that the CF investigations - both the CF National Investigation Service (NIS) criminal investigation, and the Board of Inquiry (BOI) administrative investigation - were "worthless" and "of no value to me." He reiterates the point here:

Amir Attaran, the University of Ottawa law professor whose digging through detainee-transfer documents uncovered a pattern of suspicious injuries on three detainees captured last April near Dukah, Afghanistan, said he doubted the military could properly investigate itself.

"In light of what happened a decade ago in Somalia, I very much doubt that [the military] should investigate internally," he said.

Nice little drive-by smear, that. Not only does he raise the spectre of the rogue Airborne troops beating a Somali to death - an event that irrevocably changed the CF and the way troops deal with detainees - but he also suggests that the military shouldn't investigate itself. Of course, if the military didn't investigate itself, he'd be castigating them for complacency.

Oh, wait. He already did that:

The possible mistreatment first came to light in military documents that Amir Attaran, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, says he obtained under access to information legislation.

"It is inexcusable that they have not investigated," Attaran said. "This is not right."

Attaran needs to pick a position here; he can't play 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' with this issue.

But let's step beyond his inconsistencies for a moment and look at the underlying issue at the core of this lawyer's problem with the Canadian Forces. For Attaran, the idea that Canadian soldiers might have roughed up Taliban detainees is tangential to his real beef, which is this: Canadian policy states that detainees in Afghanistan will be handed over to the Afghan government, who don't always play by the Marquess of Queensberry rules.

Let me be perfectly clear: I believe that Attaran's entire motivation in pushing this story into the press was to get the CF on the ropes so he could hammer them over detainee transfer policy. That was the impetus for his initial Access to Information requests. I doubt that he particularly cares that the reputation of the CF is being unceremoniously dragged through the mud in order to facilitate his attack on a Government of Canada policy implemented by the CF. I don't know that it would even occur to him that he doesn't really want the military picking and choosing which government directives it will or will not follow.

What all this means is that even if the abuse by Canadian soldiers story is still-born after the investigations conclude there was no wrongdoing by CF members, he can still push the 'but you're turning prisoners over to known torturers' angle and keep the story above the fold on page one of the newspapers. It's a classic 'bait and switch': hook the public on the idea of soldiers abusing detainees, and even if that's proven false, feed them the completely separate issue of detainee transfers to the Afghan government.

Look at Attaran's remarks in today's Ottawa Sun:

An Ottawa professor is calling for the resignations of Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor and the Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier for what he says is their failure to address possible abuse of detainees by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa law professor, said O'Connor and Hillier should resign over Canada's "routine practice of handing over prisoners to known torturers."

"It has long been my concern that Canada is acting disgracefully in transferring detainees to Afghanistan when we know the Afghan national police torture," he said.

See how the Sun reporters got it wrong? Attaran's not calling on O'Connor and Hillier to resign over the abuse allegations, he's calling on them to resign for the "routine practice of handing prisoners over to known torturers." Even though the agreement is Canadian government policy, not Hillier's policy. It simply serves Attaran's purposes to conflate the two issues, since that gets him face-time on the newscasts and column space in the newspapers.

Unsurprisingly, the media is more than happy to accommodate him, since it develops the controversy that the MSM thrives upon. Paul Koring is the lead scribe on this story, and you can bet your bottom dollar that he's thrilled to see his work above the fold on page one of the Globe and Mail for two days running now. In fact, I'd guess that even if there's nothing really new to report on the story, you'll see him milking any angle he can, no matter how lame or contrived, with every ounce of persistence and doggedness he can muster. You see, page one above the fold is the lead-dog position for an ink-stained wretch, and they'll fight to maintain that position like that lead-dog would for a bone or scrap of meat. Manufacturing controversy sells, and journalistic ambition outweighs any considerations of such outdated ideals as truth or fairness in reporting.

I sincerely doubt that Koring cares even a little that he's splattered shit all over the uniforms of every Canadian Forces member serving in Afghanistan, just to put the "working hypothesis" - Attaran's words, not mine - of an Ottawa lawyer on to the front page of his newspaper. You want 'innocent until proven guilty'? Find yourself a judge; the journos just don't care.

Much as I hate to say it, the DND response has actually helped its attackers. First of all, according Attaran, he contacted the MND's office six months ago to discuss this with Gordon O'Connor, and was rebuffed. Apparently the minister has been too busy to meet with the professor; not an hour of free time since August of last year. If that's true, it would be just about the worst course of action O'Connor and his staff could possibly have taken.

The CF has been on its heels throughout this entire process. Why wasn't the initial incident investigated? Why is there documentation missing from the files obtained by Attaran through the ATI? More importantly from a communications standpoint, why did the CF wait until a newspaper broke a sensationalist story on this issue before addressing it with internal investigations by the NIS and a BOI? Whatever happened to taking the initiative?

A press conference a couple of weeks ago when the CF first realized a reporter was sniffing around would have taken the wind right out of the entire fabricated media tempest. Pre-empt the story by announcing it first and laying out what you're going to do to look into the allegations. Don't wait for the fight to come to you. How the military consistently fails to apply basic fighting principles to their information battle never ceases to amaze and disappoint me.

And with their twin investigations and the overzealous gag orders pertaining to this story, the brass have actually abandoned the public relations field to Attaran and the press. Because while DND personnel are proscribed from commenting on the substance of the allegations because of the investigations, the press and the CF's critics are under no such restrictions. Mark my words, the Canadian Forces are going to take a worse public opinion beating than they should for at least the next few weeks, simply because they refuse to fight back.

Here's my bottom line on all this. Firstly, if a Canadian Forces member disregarded his training in the Laws of Armed Conflict or CF doctrine on the handling of detainees, then the CF should throw the book at him hard enough to punch holes in his tac-vest. You break the rules, you pay the price. That goes for anyone in the chain of command who knew about it and suppressed the information as well. The Canadian military has never been shy about imposing consequences for poor decision-making by uniformed members, and it shouldn't start getting wobbly now.

Secondly, senior leadership in the CF should allow the troops to say in public: "We didn't do anything wrong." Just like any other matter, though, soldiers need to stay in their lanes on this and confine their remarks to their own experience and expertise: "My unit was out there for two months straight and we handled detainees by the book. Here's how we do it at my level. You'll have to talk to the MP's about what they do once we hand them over to those guys." But to slam the hurricane shutters closed, hunker down, and hope this blows over is a mistake. After Somalia, the CF worked too long and hard to regain a reputation for professionalism in the treatment of detainees to allow that reputation to be sullied by unsubstantiated accusations in the press. And even if the allegations are proven to be true, the overwhelmingly vast majority of soldiers deployed to Southwest Asia don't deserve to be tarred with such an indiscriminate brush. Defend them, at the very least.

Thirdly, the CF needs to do a full-court press to inform the public by any means possible of what their stated policies and procedures actually are, and how well they're being carried out in the vast majority of cases. Talk about the training, the rules surrounding the use of force, what the troops know they can't do, the medical examinations and treatment, the use of 'humane' cuffs for heaven's sake. Talk about the International Red Cross' statement that the Canadian Forces is "scrupulous" about following the rules pertaining to detainees in Afghanistan. Talk about the fact that embedded media have actually applauded the CF's treatment of detainees. In short, inform the Canadian public of exactly what you're doing right, and furthermore, that you're doing it right at least 99% of the time.

Lastly, someone with a lot more clout than me needs to call Attaran on his Trojan horse approach to the detainee transfer issue, and call the press on their deliberate and cynical attempt to tie the two separate issues together in order to give the story more clout. I'd love to see Hillier or O'Connor stand up in front of the cameras, look directly into Joe and Jane Canuck's living room through the magic of the evening news, and say to them: "If Professor Attaran and his supporters in the press corps have a problem with government policy on detainee transfers to the Afghan government - and that's their real issue here, make no mistake - they should just come out and say so. But sullying the reputation of thousands of dedicated and professional Canadian soldiers just to get the public's attention is a cheap and disgraceful stunt. They've set this up so that no matter how we respond, it's not enough. Well, I say we're doing good work in Afghanistan, and we'll continue to do it despite these distractions."

As it stands now, this story is being spun faster than a dance-party turntable. It's time for a little clarity and perspective. And it's long past time now to call the spin for what it is: various personal agendas converging at a single point of attack.

Update: In support of my assertion that Attaran is simply using the accusation of abuse by Canadian troops as an excuse to push his pet issue of detainee transfer policy into the limelight, I would point you to this backgrounder (shamelessly lifted from the comments section at SDA):

On March 24th 2006, Attaran spoke at a conference hosted by the University of Ottawa which was called Canadian Legal Response to Torture. Ottawa University has a page on their website dedicated to the conference:

(Attaran) suspects that Canada contravenes to the Geneva Conventions because its military would be legally implicated in the treatment that transferred prisoners will receive.

“I think it’s unethical and in the view of the law, I think it’s illegal,” he said about the accord.

This one-note symphony of a professor found that nobody was listening to his complaints. So he figured out a way to make everybody listen. And woe to the majority of upstanding Canadian soldiers who happen to get in the way of his single-minded agenda.

It's days like this that I really hope what goes around truly does come around eventually.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have already stopped making monetary contributions to one of Alma Mater over a parallel slimy professor issue, but if I was a U of O grad they would be hearing from me right now about the good professor, his gutter snipe tactics and his besmirching of the reputation of great Canadians.

8:32 p.m., February 07, 2007  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Babbling: +1.

Does anyone seriously think that the good professor gives a pig's fart about how any individual Afghan may have been treated?

Or, for that matter, our media. 'Tis all an effort at self-crucifixion that I, an atheist, find repulsive.

Run the white flag up and see who salutes. Not I.


8:57 p.m., February 07, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

The professor first noted injuries reported on the prisoners as they were initially processed. One should remember that they are coming from a battlefield as a combatant, possibly forcefully subdued. Injury is not unusual in that case. It is also good practice to note any injuries at this point to ensure the prisoner would suffer no further injuries while in captivity.
The professor seems to have more of a problem with the Afghan government so perhaps he should direct his criticism there, with some evidence of course.

3:53 p.m., February 09, 2007  
Blogger M@ said...

I notice that you didn't address the fact that both Holland and the UK:

- Have provisions for following up on transferred prisoners, whereas the CF conveniently washes its hands once they're handed over;

- Demand that they be notified of prisoner transfers to a third nation (we know who we're talking about here, I hope).

These are simple requirements that would allay all of the professor's concerns. Since it's that easy, why doesn't the CF just catch up with the rest of the major fighting nations involved in the mission?

10:51 p.m., February 09, 2007  
Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

M@: because it's not up to the CF. It's up to the Canadian government. Attaran and Koring should direct their efforts there instead of dragging soldiers through the mud, and sensationalizing allegations which - at the moment - rest on extremely flimsy evidence.

11:19 a.m., February 10, 2007  
Blogger M@ said...

Fair enough. But I think his questioning (whether it's deranged or not I decline to judge) of O'Connor and Hillier is quite apt. Let's not confuse the issues: questioning Canada's policy on detainees is responsible. Bringing the soldiers into it is not.

I don't mean to criticise what you're saying too strongly, but too often these days, reasonable questioning of the Canadian military policy is shouted down with "support our troops!" The non-debate in parliament on renewing the Afghanistan mission is a good example.

I'm saying this, just so we're clear, as a former soldier who has friends currently serving and one colleague dead (#12 in your list) in Afghanistan.

12:15 p.m., February 10, 2007  
Blogger Dr.Dawg said...

I'm getting more than irritated by the attacks on Attaran, whose credentials and bona fides should not be a matter for debate. He has an international reputation in both international law and public health issues. He's also a vocal critic of Robert Mugabe, but that won't save him from the "our troops right or wrong" crowd. Judging from some of the comments I've seen, the man is simply too brown to have any credibility at all in some quarters.

He's dead on when it comes to handing over prisoners, whoops, I mean "detainees," over to the soft-hearted ex-Northern Alliance types in charge of Afghanistan. It's a disgrace--intramural "extraordinary rendition" is what it amounts to. Anyone captured, whoops, I mean "detained," by our guys may as well kiss their ass goodbye,after a period of painful detention.

I, for one, salute Professor Attaran's on-going human rights efforts, and all the vicious calumny directed his way by the "rah rah" crowd won't change that one iota.

5:21 p.m., February 10, 2007  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Dr. Dawg: Prof. Attaran (blue, pink, brown, Aryan--he is of Iranian origin) may have many human rights interests. But in this instance he is not just raising an issue, he has prejudged it, which makes one suspect his objectivity:

"Ottawa professor is calling for the resignations of Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor and the Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier for what he says is their failure to address possible abuse of detainees by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa law professor, said O'Connor and Hillier should resign over Canada's "routine practice of handing over prisoners to known torturers."

"It has long been my concern that Canada is acting disgracefully in transferring detainees to Afghanistan when we know the Afghan national police torture," he said."

Only these two people should resign? The agreement on prisoners was signed by Gen. Hillier with the approval of the Liberal government in Dec. 2005.

Why does not the good professor include those Liberals amongst those who should be held to account? Including M. Dion?

Do keep commenting here, on the full range of things.


8:46 p.m., February 10, 2007  
Blogger Dr.Dawg said...

Mark: Saying Dr. Attaran "is of Iranian origin" is like saying that Dion "is of French origin." Attaran was born in the US and became a naturalized Canadian citizen.

Should the Libs be held to account on the prisoner transfer agreement? Sure, although I'm not sure Dion had a hand in it.

My point stands, namely: Attaran has become the issue. Not human rights abuses in Afghanistan, alleged or real. You can see a smattering of chatter about Attaran over at my place.

9:10 p.m., February 10, 2007  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Dr. Dawg: From a Globe story, obviously with info from the good professor:

"Prof. Attaran, born in the United States to immigrant Iranians, is a naturalized Canadian."

My issue has been with the Globe's ridiculous focus on the story, not the professor.

"Who's out to get the Canadian Forces?"

I think that if you read
Babbling's posts carefully you will see that he also is mostly concerned about the Globe's coverage.

But it does seem that the professor has an agenda, regardless of his religion or ethnicity.

And certainly in our major media the issue is not the professor but the CF and the possibility (hope?) of another Somalia.

See my comment at your site for more on "The Torch".


9:32 p.m., February 10, 2007  
Blogger WE Speak said...

"He's dead on when it comes to handing over prisoners, whoops, I mean "detainees," over to the soft-hearted ex-Northern Alliance types in charge of Afghanistan. It's a disgrace--intramural "extraordinary rendition" is what it amounts to. Anyone captured, whoops, I mean "detained," by our guys may as well kiss their ass goodbye,after a period of painful detention.

I, for one, salute Professor Attaran's on-going human rights efforts, and all the vicious calumny directed his way by the "rah rah" crowd won't change that one iota."

Silly me, I thought this particular issue was alleged abuse of captured prisoners.

"Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa law professor, said O'Connor and Hillier should resign over Canada's "routine practice of handing over prisoners to known torturers."

Hillier and the rest of the CF under his command have nothing to do with Canada's policy on prisoner transfer, other than obeying the direction provided by the elected representatives. If Attaran is such an experienced lawyer, he should know better. Instead he is using this to smear the CF and raise the profile on the real issue he is protesting.

By all means, let's have a full and frank debate on the issue of prisoner transfers, just don't expect anyone here to condone using the CF for drive by smears as the vehicle to arrive at said debate.

12:39 a.m., February 11, 2007  
Blogger Dr.Dawg said...

Mark: The mention of "Iranian" puts me off. I'm not accusing you of anything, but it generates immediate resonances that are simply not germane to the issue at hand, but sound like they are. In short, intentional or not, it's a smear.

bbs makes his point, the one that's been driving the debate here and elsewhere. So, then, are Attaran's actions on behalf of human rights simply intended to besmirch Canadian troops, as part of some dark political agenda (that may, or may not, have to do with his distant Iranian origins)? Or is his human rights activism exactly what it appears to be? Judging from his past activities, I'd come down for the latter, myself.

There's another issue, too, not touched on here. After Nuremberg, it's not sufficient to say, "Well, I handed over a lot of 'detainees' to certain torture and death, but the Liberals made me do it." Hillier and O'Connor each has a moral responsibility that is enshrined in international law. I think that's what Attaran was getting at.

7:22 a.m., February 11, 2007  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Dr. Dawg: As I commented earlier it was the Globe/Globe, which the professor has been using to make his allegations, that raised the point that he was Iranian--presumably with Mr Attaran's knowledge.

And to repeat this: why does he not go after Liberals such as Graham, former foreign minister Pettigrew, and former PM Martin who have the direct responsibility for the agreement?


9:52 a.m., February 11, 2007  
Blogger Dr.Dawg said...

Mark: I don't know, and haven't the time to dig right now, but did Attaran not, in fact, go after the Liberals at the time? Did his campaign about detainee transfer not commence under the Martin government? And does it not make sense, in the present, to go after the government of the day, not the official opposition?

11:02 a.m., February 11, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

In response to the position that Canadian forces in Afghanistan should not hand over prisoners to the Afghan government, one should remember that the Afghan government is not now just the 'Northern Alliance' but has had national elections. These may not have been perfect but they were a huge improvement over what transpired before. However back to the point. I don't think that the Canadians could refuse to hand over combatants, who waged war and possibly committed crimes in Afghanistan, to the legal government of Afghanistan.
We possibly have more grounds for not handing prisoners over to the Americans regarding their recent record with prisoners and the fact they are in another country's jurisdiction.

6:09 p.m., February 15, 2007  

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