Canada's Role in the CIA Torture Program Shouldn't Be Ignored

Canada doesn't torture. But little-known policies and our own recent past mean the US isn't the only one with something to account for.

by Aaron Mate
Dec 19 2014, 10:02pm

Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Photo via Flickr user Kashmera.

As the world reacted to the first public account of the CIA's torture program with shock and calls for prosecution, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper greeted the news with a shrug.

"This is a report of the United States Senate," Harper said. "It has nothing to do whatsoever with the government of Canada."

It's true that Canadians get scant mention in the Senate Intelligence Committee's summary of CIA brutality and deception. But Harper's dismissal ignores Canada's role in the Bush administration's global rendition and detention operation—and ongoing policies that could still involve us in torture abroad.

While Canada was not directly implicated in the horrors inflicted on US detainees—waterboarding, violent and sexual threats, week-long sleep deprivation, and "rectal feeding," among others—there are lingering questions over how the federal government lent a hand.

Declassified government documents show 20 CIA aircraft landed in Canada 74 times when the US flew prisoners to military jails and black sites around the world. Canadian officials were instructed to inform the media of "no credible information to suggest that these planes were used to ferry suspected terrorists."

Alex Neve, Secretary-General of Amnesty International Canada, told VICE his group first raised concerns about the flights in November 2005. "We weren't concerned about flight logs and safety checks—we wanted to look at international norms around torture, lawful arrest, and fair trials," Neve says. "At the end of the day we never received a full answer to our questions." The details of who was on board and where they were taken remain unknown.

Harper downplayed the CIA report while simultaneously rejecting calls to stop intelligence-sharing with torture-tainted foreign partners. Ministerial directives permit circumstances wherein Canada's five main security agencies can both weigh evidence likely obtained by torture and pass on information that might result in torture happening abroad.

The office of Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney told reporters that while Canada does not condone or engage in torture, it will continue to act on intelligence "from any source... to protect Canadian life and property." That ostensibly means Canada could use statements gleaned from, say, threatening a prisoner with a drill held to their head, or with having their mother's throat cut. While that's no longer a CIA practice, Canada appears to be telling its other brutality-prone buds: keep doing your thing, and holler at us if you find anything good.

This worries human rights advocates, who are calling for Canada to rescind the directives.

"This is very concerning, contrary to the absolute prohibition against torture in international law, and contrary to Canadian beliefs," Sukanya Pillay, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told VICE. "[We] should not encourage torture in other countries."

Amnesty International Canada's Neve agreed: "We're concerned that these ministerial directions legitimize, authorize, and in fact even require complicity in torture."

In addition to the legal and ethical issues, this anything-goes policy raises practical concerns. As the Senate report found, the abuse of prisoners leads to "fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence." Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior intelligence officer and manager at CSIS, told VICE: "Torture is simply unreliable. As a field officer, I've seen people say whatever they think you want to hear, in normal interrogation circumstances, just to get the heat off of them. Torture and physical abuse simply increases the pressure to invent."

One person who experienced that first-hand is Canadian citizen Maher Arar, perhaps the best-known victim of the US's "extraordinary rendition" policy. Acting on a tip from the RCMP, US officials seized Arar during a 2002 New York layover and deported him to Syria. Imprisoned and tortured in an underground cell for nearly a year, Arar "confessed" to training at an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan—a country he'd never set foot in. Even after securing Arar's release, Canadian officials continued to smear his reputation with media leaks and investigations. An official Commission of Inquiry ultimately led to a Canadian government apology and Arar receiving over $10 million in compensation.

The Arar commission spawned a separate inquiry into the cases of three Arab-Canadians who also wound up in Syrian torture chambers—Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El-Maati, and Muayyed Nureddin. The 2008 probe found that Canada's intelligence-sharing with Syria and the US resulted in their imprisonment and abuse. But despite a parliamentary committee vote to apologize to the three men, the Harper government has blocked the group's bid for compensation, setting off a court battle now approaching its sixth year.

Then there's Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, now serving the remainder of his sentence in Canada, who was the youngest prisoner and last Western citizen to be held at Guantanamo Bay. Khadr sued the Canadian government for conspiring with the US in his abuse, claiming he was subjected to sleep deprivation and other cruel acts before CSIS agents interrogated him at Guantanamo in 2003 and 2004. The Canadians were granted access to Khadr after agreeing to share any intelligence they obtained with the United States. The US has denied that his treatment amounted to torture.But in 2010, Canada's Supreme Court ruled in Khadr's favor, saying Canadian officials violated his Charter rights by taking part in the interrogation while he was under duress, indefinitely detained and deprived of legal counsel.

There are other troubling cases, including Canada's transfer of more than 400 prisoners to Afghan and US forces despite both countries' dubious records on torture. Detainees that ended up in Afghan custody reported being "beaten, whipped, starved, frozen, choked, and subjected to electric shocks." A senior Canadian diplomat bluntly informed Parliament in 2009 that it was likely "all the Afghans we handed over were tortured." The full picture has not yet come to light after Canadian officials stonewalled the official government probe. But it was among several cases that led the United Nations Committee Against Torture to accuse Canada of torture "complicity" in a 2012 report.

Although Harper claims there's nothing for us to see here, Canada could use the CIA's public shaming as an opportunity for a reckoning of our own.

"While of course [we're] nowhere near at the level and scope and scale of what has been revealed in the [US]," said Amnesty's Neve, "this does remind us that we have our own record of complicity and responsibility for torture that has still not been addressed, and should be." Key for Amnesty is implementing the Arar inquiry's call to end any intelligence sharing with foreign agencies that could lead to torture. "That was a very clear and unambiguous recommendation," Neve says. "But rather than act on that, the [federal government's] directives go in exactly the opposite direction."

Juneau-Katsuya, the former CSIS officer, says Maher Arar's ordeal has made Canadian agencies more cautious about sharing information with foreign governments. But when it comes to receiving intelligence, Juneau-Katsuya worries that Canada could be complicit in torture it won't perform itself. "If you're aware that someone is about to commit a crime and you benefit from the commission of that crime, in a court of law you're just as guilty," Juneau-Katsuya says. "The rationale works the same way here. You say you don't torture. But if you turn around and use intelligence from it, it's not just hypocrisy—you're as bad as the torturer."

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