Friday, December 11, 2009

Can you Smell Smoke? Are Harper's Pants On Fire?

Or is the motor burning out on the Reformers spin machine?

Probably all of the above.

However, recent poll results indicate that he is losing the battle for public opinion and the more he balks at handing over the detainee files, the guiltier he looks.

The Winnepeg Free Press states that MacKay must resign: THE Harper government has done a disservice to Canada and our troops by its obstructionism and inept management of the controversy surrounding detained persons in Afghanistan. Defence Minister Peter MacKay should resign to give a new minister an opportunity to restore confidence in the government and bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

Murray Brewster with the Canadian Press says Tories use 3-D strategy to deal with Afghan abuse controversy "The Harper government employed a 3-D strategy — deny, deflect and divide ... Prime Minister Stephen Harper ... deflected the issue, characterizing the question as an attack on Canadian troops. The divisive tactic has been used by the Conservatives almost every time the prison torture allegation has been raised.

But Don Newman said it best:

Anatomy of a spin gone wrong
December 10, 2009
By Don Newman, special to CBC News

It is fascinating to watch the Conservative spin doctors worry among themselves about the fallout from the Afghan prisoners' revelations and then go into full spin mode whenever a journalist or a camera comes into view.

"Nobody cares beyond the Queensway," they intone as one, referring to the expressway that marks the end of downtown Ottawa, about 25 blocks from Parliament Hill.

These spin doctors are the party faithful who receive the emails with the talking points that the government puts out to try and shape the political argument of the day.

All the parties do it. But as with most of the tools of modern political campaigning, the Conservatives do it best.

In this case, Conservative spin doctors have also been doing it full bore since Nov. 18, when Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin began his testimony before a parliamentary committee.

Colvin testified that during his posting in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007 he had attempted to warn his superiors of the possible abuse and torture of Afghan detainees after they were turned over to local authorities.

Six days later, he told the committee that officials in Ottawa ignored and then tried to suppress his warnings that prisoners transferred to Afghan authorities were likely tortured.

Stopping the spin

The organized response by the spin doctors was to question Colvin's integrity, character and motives.

The more public response by the government was to bring forward the retired generals who had served in Afghanistan during that period — including the former chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier — to deny the allegations and say no warnings were received.

Only this time, the spin hasn't worked.

And now the Harper government has been stopped in its tracks.

Stopped by the current chief of the defence staff, Gen. Walt Natynczyk, who now acknowledges he wasn't fully informed of everything that went on.

Stopped by the signatures of 71 retired Canadian ambassadors on a letter in support of Colvin.

And stopped by the common sense of Canadians who could not see any motive or benefit for Colvin in coming forward as he did.

Indeed, despite the attacks on Colvin, in particular by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, and the full-court press by the spin doctors that no one cares anyway, it turns that many Canadians think Colvin has been telling the truth.

The latest EKOS poll, for example, shows a majority believe that at least some of the prisoners transferred by Canadian troops to Afghan authorities were tortured.

What's more, among the people who think that, over 80 per cent believe there is a strong chance that people in the government were aware of that possibility.

The dominos fall

That poll was taken before the bombshell news conference on Wednesday by Natynczyk, just a day after testifying at the Commons committee.

Natynczyk told reporters he had just received information that confirmed that a prisoner taken into custody by Canadian troops in 2006, and then transferred to Afghan authorities, had indeed been severely beaten.

Not only did that new information contradict Natynczyk's testimony before the committee, it contradicted what Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Defence Minister MacKay, former defence minister Gordon O'Connor and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon have been saying.

It also contradicts the testimony of Rick Hillier, who was the top guy in 2006 when the transfer and beating took place.

One name stands out

Natynczyk's move to set the record straight was an honourable one and it didn't surprise anyone who knows the general as a man of principle.

The fact that, as the chief of the defence staff, he took his lumps and used the public route of a press conference to correct the record is particularly impressive.

So too, is the letter from the former diplomats, generally models of discretion, reproaching the government for attacking Colvin in the first place.

Many of the signatories are former stars of the Canadian diplomatic service but one name that really stands out is that of Robert Fowler.

He is, of course, the former ambassador who was kidnapped and held for ransom along with a colleague last year around this time in Niger, while on a special mission for the UN.

The other signatories also had distinguished foreign service careers, but Fowler's recent travails — and his exemplary international reputation — give the letter added profile.

Faced with Natynczyk's reversal and the diplomats' letter, the government has been trying a new spin cycle.

Incredibly, some Conservative politicians and their acolytes are now claiming that Natynczyk's new information confirms what they have been saying all along, that the detainee system needed to be tightened up.

MacKay, who is the primary target of the diplomats' letter for slamming Colvin in the first place, is now praising the military and the foreign service, while claiming, along with the prime minister, that those opposition politicians who want more information on detainee transfers are in fact attacking these two institutions.

Maybe that new spin will work. But the more likely case is that the information and advice from trained military and foreign service professionals who know what they are doing, will trump the webs woven by politicians and their spinners who often seem as though they don't.

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