All the makings of this government's first scandal

Afghanistan - torture, mensonges, censure et cafouillage

It's been said the Harper government will do anything to win. It is prepared go to extremes - information control, shutting down dissent and the like. To be mired in that mindset is to court adversity. And now it has it.
Much is still unclear in the Afghan detainee controversy, but it is one that has the makings of this government's first scandal. And, as with so many scandals, it's not so much the deed itself that is at the heart of it, but the government's attempt to hide the truth.
There is nothing that undercuts the credibility of a government more than the word "cover-up" - the charge the Harper government faces now.
The Conservatives have tried to play innocent in regard to the abuse of prisoners held by Afghan security forces. But their case has been repeatedly undermined, primarily by strong journalism. At almost every turn, their version of events has been contradicted.
The government denies the existence of a report from Canadian diplomats; the report is produced.
The government denies torture and abuse in Afghan jails; Globe and Mail correspondent Graeme Smith provides chapter and verse on instances of torture and abuse.
The diplomats' report has sections blacked out; sections that contain information pointing to the very conclusion the government denied.
The government claims that the Red Cross monitored the treatment of prisoners handed over to Afghan authorities; the Red Cross did no such thing.
The government says the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission would monitor the prisoners; the commission was not even permitted into the controversial Kandahar prison run by the secret police.
Question: How many farces can be fit in one file?
Can it be that all these and other contradictions were innocent mistakes? Or has an inept defence minister made such a hash of things that the government feared being caught up in such transgressions as Geneva Convention violations and decided, "Let's bluff our way through it."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was calm in the face of the opposition onslaught in the Commons yesterday. Although he said he was taking the allegations seriously, he was basically in denial mode. Contrary to a published account, he maintained the report in question was a normal annual one and that these reports have been coming out since 2002 and there were no specific reports on possible abuse of Afghan detainees.
On the matter of incriminating portions of the report being erased, he said that it was only the bureaucrats who did that work, not the politicians. Maybe so, but from a government more fixated on information control than almost any other we've seen, it's natural to think that the directive was given to the bureaucrats.
The PM was asked repeatedly to have Gordon O'Connor resign. Usually, in such situations, a PM will come to the beleaguered minister's aid, saying he or she is doing fine work and that he has every confidence in them.
But Mr. Harper offered nothing of the sort. There is a suspicion that staff in Mr. O'Connor's own ministry are so fed up that they are the ones behind damaging leaks. Being such a hands-on leader, it stretches credibility to believe Mr. Harper was in the dark on the detainee question to the extent he has suggested. Under the Liberals, defence minister Art Eggleton got caught up in a scandal that had similarities to today's controversy. Now, given Jean Chrétien's penchant to let his ministers run their own show, it was quite possible that PM was in the dark. But not Mr. Harper.
The opposition has been handed a hammer with which to pound the government for weeks to come: What did you know? When did you know it? For the first time, the Prime Minister is on the run. The opposition has scored already, having forced Mr. O'Connor to apologize for misleading the House on the Red Cross question. It can be expected to score again.
In war, governments have to be scrupulous in heeding the truth. The verdict isn't in yet, but the evidence is accumulating to the effect that the Conservatives have not met the standard.

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