December 14, 2009

Blatchford: time to put down the pen/mouse/stylus on detainees

I have a lot of respect for Christie Blatchford, but she's officially too close to this detainee story. Paul Wells has previously observed this, too, but that was before her story this weekend.

On June 14, 2006, a Canadian Military Police officer who was working with the Afghan National Police was on the scene when the ANP stopped a van leaving a battle. The ANP said one of the three men inside was definitely a Taliban. The MP photographed the man and wrote his name down, but agreed to let him travel with the ANP back to Patrol Base Wilson. It was a 15-minute trip. Back at the base, the MP dutifully checked on the fellow and found the ANP beating him with their shoes. The MP then took the man back and made him an official detainee.

Nice story, but it's contradicted by some facts previously in evidence. Specifically the section commander's report given to the CDS last week. The section commander, as far as we could tell, was not military police. If there was military police present at the initial custody, he certainly wouldn't have referred to sending the man back to the FOB so that "watchdog" (the MPs) could have access to him. That's what an infantry soldier would say. His callsign, Orion 22, also suggests this was a regular infantry section. The section commander did not just "ask questions and take a picture," he conducted a detailed personal search and a vehicle search and catalogued the man's effects. His statement as read by the CDS also seems to indicate the traffic stop was made by Canadian Forces and an interpreter, not the ANP as in Blatchford's telling.

Now, these are fairly minor quibbles that may not indicate anything much (I have yet to hear anything REMOTELY negative about how Canadian Forces personnel handled this particular incident), but these are facts that were in the public documentary record as of the CDS's press conference Wednesday. Blatchford, writing a couple days later, but having received her own account of the story from a military contact, did not evidently take the time or feel the need to in any way deconflict that source's story and what was already known, and instead just repeated her own anonymous hearsay version verbatim to readers. That kind of "too good to check" stuff should not really be seen as acceptable journalistic practice, and more than likely indicates that Blatchford is letting her bias interfere with her news judgment. Which, in the same piece, she admits being prone to on this kind of story, by the way.

In case all the staff in the Globe missed that day in J-school, this is how it's supposed to work. When a writer admits to a personal bias in her stories, stories that at the same time contradict the known facts and favour those biases, well, it's probably time for them to write about something else.

UPDATE, Dec. 16: The actual handwritten document, which confirms the individual was not an military policeman, and that Canadian soldiers were directly involved in the initial traffic stop, is also linked from here.

Posted by BruceR at 06:38 PM

Detainees: who wants ginger snaps?

There's a Simpsons ep where Homer is an astronaut, and long-suffering wife Marge is watching his spaceship's re-entry on TV with the kids. Contact is lost, and Marge says, "Don't worry, I'm sure everything will be fine." When Lisa asks, "what are you basing that on, mom?" she pauses for a moment, and then shouts, "who wants ginger snaps?"

As of this weekend, I'd say media supporters of the government's handling of the Afghan mission are in decidedly ginger-snappish territory.

Let's start with Susan Riley in the Citizen.

But the problem is fixed now. That wouldn't satisfy everyone, but many Canadians -- who have scant sympathy for Taliban suspects and abiding respect for the troops -- would have accepted it. Crisis defused.

What are you basing that on, Susan?

Look, here's the facts. The NDS is still the investigative arm of the police. We don't watch them closely, but they likely haven't changed. All Afghan insurgent-related detainees to this day still are at their disposal eventually. Also, the vast majority of detainees taken in Kandahar Province up to eight months ago were taken by the Afghan security forces without documentation, whether ISAF forces were also involved in their capture or not. No one, Afghans included, has any real idea where any of those people are now. The protocols we have with the Afghan government only govern the smaller number who spent time in the Canadian detainee cage in KAF before the Afghans took them, because those are the only detainees we have followup responsibilities to under current interpretations of our Geneva obligations.

The Afghan government's detainee apparatus I worked with was simply not designed to generate POWs, or intelligence for that matter. It presumably was more successful at generating ransoms, given its revolving-door nature at the time. And sure, maybe things have gotten better that way, but in April 2009, in my last report after watching this through the ANA G2's office for over half a year, I said I was watching them get worse by the month. Hey, T.I.A. (This. Is. Afghanistan), as I've said before: the fact that getting taken prisoner often appeared to be a 72-hour time out pass for those who could pay promptly was nowhere remotely NEAR the biggest problem in Kandahar at the time. But the idea that all Afghanistan's detainee issues were "fixed" two years ago and remains anywhere near fixed today, by any definition you want to use of the word "fixed," could potentially be contradicted by any of a thousand Afghan veterans with stories to tell if the PM or the Defence Minister ever pretended it was all fine and dandy, and I don't believe they are all die-hard Conservative voters. Oh look, here's one now.

In short, Riley's recommendation on the government's best media talking point on this one likely would not have been the best tack for them to take.

UPDATE: I personally think Jeff Simpson is persuasive on the better course of action on this issue.

Posted by BruceR at 05:10 PM