OTTAWA — When Cabinet ministers were attacking diplomat Richard Colvin’s credibility and denying his warnings about the Afghan torture of detainees handed over by Canadian soldiers, it wasn’t a fair fight.
Mr. Colvin triumphed because he had spent 18 months on Afghan soil, visited its prisons and talked to detainees. The ministers were merely engaged in political bluster.
But now Mr. Colvin’s credibility is being pounded by military brass with top-level Afghanistan credentials, a tri-general counteroffensive that demands the government free up the secret correspondence that is said to support the diplomat’s incendiary testimony.
The front that opened on Wednesday in this theatre of political war included testimony from past and present generals, including that phenomenon of personality, former chief of defence staff General Rick Hillier.
Gen. Hillier was, as expected, a blast of charisma before he unleashed an angry defence of troop behaviour and professionalism in restraining themselves when dealing with Taliban prisoners still coated with fresh explosive residue from trying to kill Canadian soldiers.
But the most damning testimony came from Lieut.-Gen. Michel Gauthier, an Afghanistan commander Mr. Colvin avoided because he wasn’t a nice person.
A grinning Gen. Hillier said that was the one true statement in Mr. Colvin’s testimony. Gen. Gauthier was “very difficult to deal with” as a by-the-book taskmaster and, having interviewed him in Kandahar, I agree he can be pompous and prickly.
But, as Gen. Gauthier testified while showing a rare hint of emotion, that doesn’t justify an MP alleging on national television that he’s a war criminal for knowingly transferring detainees to be tortured.
Then he dropped the bomb. He told the special committee hearing that he has read and re-read the still-secret e-mail trail submitted by Mr. Colvin as the basis for his version of events. There’s nothing — nothing — in the contents that would alert the military or the bureaucracy to any concerns or even hints of detainee torture, he said.
Even worse, he testified, the responses showed only respectful support and gratitude for Mr. Colvin’s field reports and findings.
If the e-mails do not support his testimony, Mr. Colvin’s credibility is dead and those opinion polls showing the public believes him will collapse into powdery Afghan dust.
Now here’s the damnedest thing. Defence Minister Peter MacKay has decided the e-mail stream will remain a government-held secret.
That’s insane — and can only be explained if the documentation is being withheld until it can be unveiled at the moment for greatest government advantage. They’d better hurry because it sounds like a wounded Richard Colvin will release them with or without government approval.
Even without the documents on the table, you could almost hear the high-fives going around the Prime Minister’s Office as officials sensed the generals will turn the tide of public opinion.
And there was a slightly wide-eyed look to some Liberal and New Democrat MPs on the committee, as if they were contemplating the possibility they had fallen for a tall tale from a rogue witness.
It still defies belief that a 15-year oft-promoted diplomat, who now holds a senior position in Canada’s embassy in Washington D.C., would compromise his integrity and derail his career prospects by making up a story knowing it had serious international war crime implications.
But, lest we forget, Wednesday's testimony was from soldiers defending the military against charges of culpability in torture that were never levelled against them by anybody.
No one has suggested Canadian soldiers engaged in detainee torture and it was never up to them to conduct surprise inspections of prisons to ensure there was no abuse of prisoners.
The big debate remains the possibility of a government conspiracy to block torture warnings from being sent or being acted on in a timely manner.
That accusation will be aimed at David Mulroney (no relation to Brian) who was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s guy on the Afghanistan Task Force. He will take the stand on Thursday to refute Mr. Colvin’s allegations that he tried to discourage written correspondence on the issue.
The stakes remain high.
If Mr. Colvin’s version of events is supported and proven, Canada may be guilty of war crimes by breaking international conventions.
But if Mr. Colvin’s version of events lacks supportive documentation and continues to be shredded by witness testimony, not only will his diplomatic reputation be destroyed, but opposition parties championing his case will be humiliated for being duped by one man’s vivid imagination.