Questions linger a year after damning torture report
By Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA - Canada’s spy agency has explicitly told its officers to describe people in “a fair and precise manner” when passing information to other countries – especially ones with poor human-rights records.
The Canadian Press has learned the formal directive came last November from the deputy director of operations at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
That was one month after a federal inquiry into the torture of three Canadians lambasted CSIS for carelessly labelling suspects.
In his report released one year ago next week, former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci found Canadian officials contributed to the brutalization of Ahmad El Maati, Abdullah Almalki and Muayyed Nureddin by sharing information – including unfounded accounts of extremist links – with foreign intelligence and police agencies.
Iacobucci concluded all three were tortured behind bars in Syria and, in the case of El Maati, in Egypt as well. All deny any involvement in terrorism.
The former judge said CSIS was “deficient” in definitively describing El Maati as “an individual involved in the Islamic extremist movement.”
One CSIS witness told the inquiry that descriptions were sometimes used by the intelligence service to elicit information from a foreign agency.
“He said the service will characterize an individual, at least in part, to prompt a response from the receiving agency that will confirm or deny the assessment that the characterization reflects,” Iacobucci’s October 2008 report says.
“In my view this is a very dangerous practice, one that puts the person labelled in this manner at risk.”
CSIS recently said in a statement to The Canadian Press that it respects human rights and due process, and does not condone torture or the mistreatment of individuals.
“In November 2008, the CSIS deputy director of operations issued a directive to formalize these important principles in the context of sharing information with foreign agencies that have a poor human rights record,” it said.
“All information exchanges with foreign agencies must provide accurate and balanced information and describe threats and individuals in a fair and precise manner.”
The directive is among actions the spy agency and the RCMP have taken to better protect human rights following hard-hitting reports from Iacobucci and Justice Dennis O’Connor, who earlier examined the case of Maher Arar, another Canadian abused in Syria.
But officials from CSIS, the RCMP and other security agencies will not comprehensively spell out steps taken to fix shortcomings identified by Iacobucci’s 544-page report – and they certainly won’t link any changes, including the CSIS directive on labelling, to his findings.
That makes it difficult to fully understand what has been done – and what hasn’t – to ensure shoddy information-sharing doesn’t result in the torture of other Canadians.
Why the reticence?
Almalki, El Maati and Nureddin are suing federal agencies in Ontario Superior Court over alleged complicity in their detention and mistreatment abroad. The government denies any responsibility for their imprisonment and torture.
And while the case is open, officials have been told to clam up.
A March 31, 2009, CSIS document obtained under the Access to Information Act says the litigation means questions, including the following, will not be answered:
- What should CSIS have done to prevent what happened to the subjects of the Iacobucci commission?
- What, specifically, has CSIS done to respond to the findings of the Iacobucci report?
- Does CSIS feel any remorse for the torture suffered by the three individuals?
- Whether it was direct or indirect, can you confirm that CSIS will no longer engage in practices that may result in the torture of Canadians abroad?
An internal RCMP briefing note says Iacobucci’s findings “could have potential adverse implications” for the Mounties’ information exchanges with CSIS and foreign partners.
However, much of the note was considered too sensitive to release under the access law.
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