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Public safety minister bows to pressure on torture policy

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In a carefully worded directive, obtained by Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act, Public Safety Minister Vic Towes instructs CSIS to accept information under torture "in exceptional circumstances where there exists a threat to human life or public safety." By analyzing the letter carefully, one can easily sense that the Minister chose his words carefully for reasons he only knows.

Instead of clarifying Canada's position vis-a-vis the use of information obtained under torture, this directive adds confusion to an already ambiguous and polarized debate.

This debate started at the beginning of the hearings at the O'Connor Inquiry in mid-2004 when Ward Elcock, a former head of CSIS, testified that Canada "may have relationships with countries that may use torture." The focus back then was about whether CSIS provided information to these regimes. That particular testimony was revealing as it was the first time Canadians learned about the existence of clandestine security arrangements CSIS had established with brutal regimes such as the one in Syria.

As the O'Connor Inquiry proceedings progressed (part of which took place in camera) Canadians learned more about CSIS' relationships with other dictatorial regimes. This was also confirmed later by the findings at the Iacocbucci Inquiry where we learned that CSIS had established a close relationship with the Egyptian security agency.

At the conclusion of these inquiries, and having being exposed, CSIS attempted, but failed miserably, to publicly distance itself from the use of information obtained under torture. For instance, Jim Judd clearly stated in a 2008 letter that unless CSIS resorted to the use of information that may have been obtained under torture then the whole regime of Security Certificates may collapse and as a result Canada would not be able to deport suspected terrorists.

Then in March of 2009, veteran CSIS lawyer Geoffry O'Brian testified in front of the Commons Committee on Public Safety that CSIS indeed relies on information obtained under torture. This left no ambiguity on the position CSIS had always held regarding this matter. Mr. Judd's later testimony at the same hearings that Mr. O'Brian would recant his testimony did little to extinguish the controversy.

The bottom line is this: facts establish that CSIS has received information that may have been obtained under torture. The trouble is why CSIS insists on using this information knowing that the information is of no intelligence value as the CIA has confirmed.

In my opinion this directive proves one thing: CSIS has managed to convince the Minister of its point of view on this issue.

One thing is also sure: this directive is sending the wrong message to dictatorial regimes; you torture and we will return the favour by accepting and using your information.

This article was first posted in Prism Magazine.

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