Long live the leakers

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This week's Afghan detainee hearings in Ottawa have been a lesson in how useful some actual information can be. Here's what I mean:

Wednesday afternoon, the Three Generals (it sounds better in Spanish) testified to a Commons committee about Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin's assertions that he warned them and others, in memos, about the torture of Afghan prisoners handed over by Canadian forces. Los generales were dismissive. They said that the claim they'd known about it was "ludicrous" and that any memos they got from him contained "nothing about abuse, nothing about torture." What was a poor citizen-viewer to think? The government says it won't release the memos. Surely, generals wouldn't lie blatantly about the memos' contents. But would a diplomat, still in service, do so?

Suddenly, within an hour of the testimony, two Colvin e-mails, sent to foreign minister Peter MacKay's office in 2006, were leaked. They didn't use the words "torture" or "abuse," but warned that the Red Cross -- the global authority on treatment of prisoners in war zones -- was gravely worried about Canadian handovers. Everyone who knows about these things knows the Red Cross doesn't express explicit charges except to parties directly involved; it's the precondition of their unique access. But for the Red Cross, this went pretty far. "All kinds of things are going on," an official had said.

It became possible to try to square the circle; perhaps those contradictions weren't absolute. The generals might be "parsing" their words in a Clintonesque way ("I did not have sexual relations ..."). They weren't told that torture was going on but would have known what was implied. And Mr. Colvin, with the délicatesse of a diplomat and the care of a spook -- he usually seems to hold "security" roles in his postings -- had cloaked his words, but not his meaning.

None of this is definitive. But it allows citizens to evaluate the claims based on some evidence, rather than trying to decide, like theatre critics, who gave the most convincing performance. It is, in other words, an argument for more openness by governments and, since that isn't going to happen, for more leaks on the Colvin model.

Leaks happen often in the United States, but here, due to our institutional structures and our deferential national personality, almost never. This one was also probably the fruit of minority government: Without it, a majority on the committee would have simply vetoed Mr. Colvin's appearance.

Yesterday's hearing with former Afghanistan point man David Mulroney was useful mainly when MPs focused on a few highly censored documents they'd managed to obtain. Otherwise, he rambled bureaucratically and intoned the political word of the year, "robust." One could only hope new leaks would follow.

I want to close with a reminder of why this kind of information flow matters. I just watched a 10-minute film on this website about Sergeant Robert Short, one of the first Canadians to die in Afghanistan under enemy fire. It conveys in a stately way the pain, dignity and restraint of his widow and father and, through them, of Sgt. Short.

Such people are not in a position to make the kind of decisions that put him there and led to his death; they must hope for the best from military and political authorities. But those decision-makers are fallible and prey to their own motives. They may apply policies, like a detainee handover regimen, that can needlessly increase risks for Canadians both there and here. So someone must judge the decision-makers, and that can only be all of us, the electorate. Even a "public inquiry" is usually the result of informed public pressure. To do that, we need more than trust in power or in the opinions of experts and pundits. We need information. Long live the leakers.

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