Big hullaballoo following CSIS lawyer Geoffrey O’Brian’s testimony before the public safety committee, in which he said that Canadian intelligence agencies would make use of information obtained by torture from foreign agencies in the “one-in-a-million” eventuality that “lives were at stake.” In fact, said O’Brian, who has been with CSIS since its inception in 1984, “we would be bound to do so.”
Under further questioning from aghast committee members, he admitted that agencies often “have no idea under what conditions info received from foreign agencies is obtained” and “just because a country has a questionable or even abysmal human rights record does not mean info received from them is necessarily extracted by torture.”
That would be the old don’t-ask-don’t-tell-Syria defence. CSIS Director Jim Judd used it back in November 2006 to defend using Syrian intel on Maher Arar. So are we still trading info with Syria and Egypt? Yes we are, but now “with caveats.”
The committee members pressed on: “What Canadians want to hear is that we do not condone the use of information derived from torture.”
O’Brian: “I would love to give you a simple answer. The simple answer is that we will never use info from torture. I cannot say that because recipients of info do not know how that info was obtained. I can say we do not knowingly” — and he stressed this again — “knowingly use info extracted by torture.”
Huge stink in the Star, G&M;, and CBC.
On Thursday, CSIS Director Jim Judd and Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan appeared before the public safety committee. Judd:
“I think it’s unfortunate that Mr. O’Brian may have been confused in his testimony. He will be clarifying that via a letter to this committee. I know of no instance where such information has been made use of by our service.”
“He [O’Brian] ventured into the hypothetical. In the past we used information obtained by torture. Such information is not to be relied upon. We’ve changed our policies. Our policy now is under no circumstances do we condone the use of torture for any reason.”
He went on to explain that the intelligence agencies are directed in this by the federal government.
Okay, that seems pretty straightforward, right?
Next up — Minister Van Loan, from whence intelligence agencies are directed, responding to MP Mourani (italics mine):
“We do not condone the use of torture in intelligence gathering and our clear directive to our law enforcement agencies and intelligence services is that they are not to condone the use of torture, practice torture, or knowingly use any information obtained by torture.”
Uh-oh. There’s that “knowingly” again.
And here’s the relevant quote from O’Brian’s “clarification” letter (again, italics mine):
“I wish to clarify for the committee that CSIS certainly does not condone torture and that it is the policy of CSIS to not knowingly rely upon information that may have been obtained through torture.”
So we’re pretty well back to O’Brian’s previous “knowingly”, aren’t we? Namely, that because we can claim to have no clue how the info we get is obtained, we’re free to go ahead and use it.
O’Brian caught shit for losing control of the spin for a moment, and that’s all that happened here.
I’d also like to point out that the RCMP got a completely free ride in the media coverage.
In his opening statement to the committee on Tuesday, RCMP spokesman Gilles Michaud rejected the use of information obtained by torture as unreliable, but explained in regards to the RCMP’s use of intelligence obtained from foreign agencies:
“I want to be clear here — there is no absolute ban on the use of any information by the RCMP.”