Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Torture and intelligence: define 'exceptional circumstances'

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The Conservative government in Ottawa and its critics are talking past each other on the issue of torture.

The opposition parties, Canadian civil liberties associations and groups such as Amnesty International have all condemned Ottawa for authorizing CSIS, the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency to use and share, in certain limited circumstances, information obtained from, or that may lead to, the use of torture.

They accuse the Conservatives of acting contrary to Canada's signed international obligations.

The government has insisted it does not condone torture, but says protection of Canadians' lives and property must be the chief consideration of its security agencies.

Here's a reality check. Torture is horrible. So, too is, for example, being blown up by a terrorist's bomb. Trying to resolve this issue without recognizing multiple evils exist in this world -- and security officials often have to grapple with questions of greater and lesser evils -- is either naive or misguided.

After all, Canadian officials have a solemn responsibility that cannot be waived to safeguard this country's citizens.

In the first case, acting on information brought to Canadian authorities' attention that may have been obtained through torture abroad, surely the key question is: What is the nature of this information?

In a scenario that's often brought up, let's say a foreign intelligence service in an unsavoury country tips off CSIS a bomb is set to detonate the next day in a crowded Canadian location, such as Toronto's Eaton Centre or the House of Commons.

Critics deride such conjecture as Hollywood thinking, but it wasn't that long ago Canadian authorities apprehended the participants in just such a scheme.

In such circumstances, Canadians would be outraged if officials did nothing with that tip, regardless of whence it came, and scores of their fellow citizens died.

A strict protocol to deal with deciding whether to act on such information is prudent.

In the second case, involving the decision to share information with foreign sources that may lead to torture of an individual, one would hope such actions would be contemplated only in the gravest circumstances.

But given the track record of the slipshod thinking by some individuals in Canadian security agencies exposed in the Arar and Air India inquiries, there's ample reason to demand such decisions only be made rarely, and only with the concurrence of the minister.

In any case, the government's directives do need to be far more explicit in defining the "exceptional circumstances" when such information would be considered or shared.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2012 A11

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