Columnists

Matthew Behrens
Taking Liberties: Canada's BRAT strategy of all torture, all the time

| March 22, 2012

When "Public Safety" Minister Vic Toews released his "new" national security strategy last month, he cautioned the few people paying attention that "no government can guarantee it will be able to prevent all terrorist attacks all the time," as if such catastrophic events were a daily reality as common to Canadians as mosquitoes.

Building Resilience Against Terrorism (or BRAT, a more than apt acronym reflecting the behaviour of agents from Canada's state security apparatus) is a hodgepodge of Management 101 PowerPoint nonsense that simply regurgitates the same unsubstantiated nostrums that CSIS, the RCMP, and other fearmongers have been parroting for years. Timed to coincide with the budget battle expected to hit Ottawa shortly -- in which departments will have to justify their budgets -- the BRAT reads like the desperate plea of secretive organizations trotting out the rationale for continued high funding.

Among those genuinely pleased with the BRAT strategy were terrorism industry academic cheerleaders like Wesley Wark, whose op-ed "At last, Canada has a counterterrorism strategy," illustrates yet again how little academic rigour is actually brought to their analysis. Wark gushes about this "terrific stuff" that "deserves pretty high marks" because of its call for "government-citizen partnership," code name for the coercive role CSIS plays in forcing individuals to spy on their communities. No condemnation here of Canadian agencies whose memos, released in December, confirmed that much of their work is built upon information gleaned from torture, nor of no-fly lists that continue to create havoc for certain targeted travellers.

And yet the BRAT confirms that Canada will continue to trade information with torturers (countries "with questionable human rights records") while paying lip service to human rights obligations.

Had this been a document produced in 1952, it would have fit perfectly into the anti-Communist hysteria being generated by the RCMP Security Service: replace "the Communists" with "the terrorists" and it is pretty boilerplate stuff, with the exception of the more modern obsession with reducing such concepts to simple one-word benchmarks. In the BRAT case, we are told that Canada will knock out the terrorists with four cornerstones: Prevent, Detect, Deny, Respond. In doing so, it trots out the familiar theories it has been playing with for years (terrorists who are lone wolves, do-it-yourselfers, foreign-inspired, and victims of gateway activism, in which participation in an anti-capitalist or environmental demonstration is that first step towards the irresistible pull of radicalization and hanging out with Al Shabab in Somalia).

While not all of the brilliant theories that Canada's spies have emerged with over the past decade have been reproduced here (who can forget the CSIS idea that tracking the dreams of Muslims might be one clue to tamping down the terror fever), the BRAT nonetheless highlights the same enemies-du-jour that have been these agencies' bread and butter for well over a decade.

Indeed, the BRAT declares that "Citizens need to be informed of the threat in an honest straightforward manner," yet no evidence is provided to repeat the tired allegation that "Violent Islamist extremism" remains priority number 1 (a finding which may come as a surprise to the women of Alberta, given the recent poll showing more than 1 in 10 men in that largely Christian province believe they are justified when, in anger, they beat their female partners). Nor is there anything to their claim that we are under threat from "domestic issue based extremism" by animal rights, environmental, and anti-capitalist activists.

While these folks (in addition to First Nations organizers, Raging Grannies, and the United Church of Canada) have long been publicly named as alleged threats to Canadian security, the report also casually throws in the term "white supremacists," which begs the larger question: how can the Canadian government claim to be against white supremacy when its entire security apparatus is based on targeting the very groups that are the focus of white hate groups (Tamils, Arab Muslims, First Nations, etc.). Does this mean Canada will now investigate the Canadian Armed Forces, for example, for using segregated washrooms while occupying Afghanistan?

Based no doubt on the advice of a public relations specialist who urged the need for more temperate language, the report says, "The Canadian experience has been shaped by a deep attachment to democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and pluralism." One can almost hear the guffaws in the mosques that are infiltrated, the community centres where individuals are coerced into interrogations by CSIS, the detention cells where thousands of refugees are annually detained, and the homes of Canadians tortured with the complicity of their own government.

Ultimately, as ongoing releases of formerly classified documents reveal, the BRAT strategy might be better described as "all torture, all the time," given that it came out just before two memos from Toews to CSIS made their way into public views thanks to the tireless work of Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill.

The memos clearly point to a Canadian government willing to act in defiance of its unequivocal international and domestic legal obligation never to be complicit in torture. They state that there will be occasions when Canada will share information that may well lead to the torture of human beings, and that they will use information that is gleaned from torture. The only obstacle involved is deciding how high up the chain of command they need to go for final authorization.

Like most ill-behaved individuals who are unable or unwilling to acknowledge and change their practices, this BRAT similarly fails to address the systemic problems of Canada's national security industry, which have been revealed in countless Federal and Supreme Court decisions, as well as two judicial inquiries documenting the extensive complicity of Canadian agencies in the torture of Canadian citizens.

Particularly illuminating among the recent document releases is a Wikileaks memo from former U.S. Ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, discussing with his bosses the heated and urgent to-and-fro between his offices and those of Canadians in the RCMP and Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT) over what they are going to do following the recommendations of the O'Connor Inquiry into the torture of Maher Arar.

Without a hint that these agencies have done anything wrong, they are, in this December, 2005 memo, instead running about trying to neutralize the impact of the report by ramping up the terror scare, all in the name of continued "information sharing" of the sort that led to the torture of Arar as well as Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, and Muayyed Nureddin.

A year before disgraced RCMP Commissioner Zaccardelli issued a faint apology to Mr. Arar, he was in conversation with Wilkins sharing his "fears" about upcoming limitations his Mounties would face, while Paul Martin's National Security Advisor Bill Elliott (who would later replace Zaccardelli as head of the RCMP) "hopes that the new [Harper] government will be reasonable in its implementation of Arar recommendations; he intends to impress this upon the transition team." In other words, basic recommendations that would, for example, ensure Canada is not complicit in torture, need to be "reasonably" applied, as if they are a nuisance rather than a call to comply with international law.

The men meeting with Wilkins also shared their concerns about the alleged inability of some people advising the commission to "put the Arar affair into proper perspective and context," as if those condemning the rendition to torture program needed to be balanced with the viewpoint of agencies who feel such dirty business is just an unfortunate part of the job. Wilkins also laments the "chilling effect" the Arar inquiry has had (another indication of why the Iacobucci inquiry into the torture of Mssrs Almalki, El Maati and Nureddin was held in compete secrecy, a sop to CSIS, the RCMP, and the U.S.).

Meanwhile, DFAIT's Scott Heatherington says he does not foresee an interruption to information sharing (indeed, who working on the inside of the system would, since these agencies, lacking transparent and binding oversight committees, are laws unto themselves). Notably, Heatherington also authored the infamous memo with respect to the overseas detention and torture of Abousfian Abdelrazik, in which he wrote "We judge it unlikely that, should Abdelrazik's detention in Sudan become public knowledge, there would be the same sort of outcry that surrounded Maher Arar's arrest and deportation from the USA."

Elliott also says that he has tried to impress upon the RCMP that "they cannot let Arar stop them from doing what they need to do," essentially a green light to continue with the illegal activities (from racial profiling to trading with torturers) that define the agency's work.

The memo ends by praising then Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan, who gets high marks for playing along with the joint Canada-U.S. strategy of deflecting attention from complicity in renditions and torture with "an aggressive public diplomacy campaign" that focuses on "the continuing threat that terrorism poses." It also notes the need to play up the weak-kneed Bill Graham/Colin Powell agreement on "involuntary removals to a third country," whereby the United States, upon rendering a Canadian to torture abroad, would have to notify Canada that it has done so.

As a signal of the BRAT's respect for human rights and the rule of law, no one has been charged in any of the torture cases, and, in fact, both Elliott and Zaccardelli have been packed off to cushy jobs overseas with Interpol, while Heatherington was appointed ambassador to Latvia.

Like most government reports, the BRAT will be read by few and relegated to dusty bookshelves. The real message here is that nothing has changed.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.