The Commons: The government's tortured answers on torture -

The Commons: The government’s tortured answers on torture

Imagine a riddle wrapped in an episode of ’24’


The Scene. In an obvious attempt to find common ground with his Conservative counterparts, Jack Harris appealed to the ideals of the free market.

“As long as there is a market for information derived from torture,” he posited, “torture will exist.”

Mr. Harris’ concern this day was the government’s quiet decision to allow for the use of information potentially obtained through torture. This after publicly renouncing the suggestion that it was operating under any such policy.

“Why,” the NDP critic wondered, “is the government getting Canada into the torture business?”

It was the duty here of Vic Toews, he of the December 2010 directive, to stand and carefully read from the blue piece of paper he held in front of him. “Mr. Speaker, Canada does not condone torture and does not engage in torture,” he explained. “CSIS and its employees are bound by Canadian law. Our government expects CSIS and security agencies to make the protection of life and property the overriding priority.”

So the Harper government does not condone torture. But it does allow the use of information gleaned from torture. At least so long as the information relates to a threat to “life” or “property.”

This perhaps begs various questions. (For instance, how much information does CSIS receive that doesn’t relate to “the protection of life and property?” Doesn’t almost everything CSIS investigates have to do with the security of “life and property?” And how is information received from known or suspected torturers screened to ensure only information about threats to “life and property” is acted upon?) But first things first, Mr. Harris wanted to know how this apparent change in policy had come about.

“Mr. Speaker, the Conservative government is showing utter contempt for the Supreme Court of Canada and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Let us not forget that in 2009 the Conservative public safety minister said, ‘this government does not condone the use of torture in any way.’ He also said, ‘If there’s any indication, any evidence that torture may have been used, that information is discounted,’ ” Mr. Harris recounted. “Can the minister please tell us what has changed? Why the sudden tacit endorsement of the use of torture as a matter of policy?”

Mr. Toews, seated three spots down from his aforementioned predecessor (Peter Van Loan), stood here and, appearing to deviate from his script, attempted to square the present with the past. “Mr. Speaker, information obtained by torture is always discounted,” he told the House. “However, the problem is whether one can safely ignore the information if Canadian lives and property are at stake.”

This was less an answer than a philosophical riddle within a semantic maze. Wrapped in an episode of 24.

The obvious follow-up would’ve been to ask how Mr. Toews defines “discount.” Or how precisely he proposes to navigate this “problem.” But Mr. Harris’ turns were done and so here Bob Rae stood and ventured how the Public Safety Minister might clear up matters.

“Will the minister table before the House exactly the nature and the wording of the directive that he has issued to CSIS employees?” the interim Liberal leader asked. “And will he explain how it is that the directive which he is putting forward is in any way compatible with Canada’s obligations under international law and the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada? It is critical that those two points be clearly made, to the minister who just gave the answer.”

The government frontbench decided that it would be better if Jason Kenney, today’s pretend prime minister, took this one. The Liberal corner cried out mockingly when he, not Mr. Toews, stood.

Mr. Kenney repeated the government’s points and then attempted his own explanation. “The minister of course clarified what I would hope the leader of the opposition and the third party would agree with that, in situations where a serious risk to public safety exists and where lives may be at stake, CSIS should make the protection of life and property its overriding priority,” he claimed, stumbling a bit as he went. “Of course we oppose the use of torture but we believe that Canada’s security agencies should prioritize the protection of life.”

And yet, however much the government believes this, it apparently didn’t do so proudly until this afternoon.

The Stats. Pensions, employment and trans fats, four questions each. CSIS, government spending and aboriginal affairs, three questions each. Abortion, patronage, military procurement and search-and-rescue, two questions each. Syria, firearms, federalism, affordable housing, public transit, agriculture, emergency aid, Saudi Arabia, immigration and crime, one question each.

Jason Kenney, seven answers. Leona Aglukkaq and Peter MacKay, four answers each. Vic Toews, Rob Nicholson, John Duncan and Jim Flaherty, three answers each. Christian Paradis, Bernard Valcourt and Julian Fantino, two answers each. Keith Ashfield, James Moore, Denis Lebel, Pierre Lemieux, Diane Finley and Diane Ablonczy, one answer each.


The Commons: The government’s tortured answers on torture

  1. Ignatieff?

  2. “CSIS and its employees are bound by Canadian law. Our government expects CSIS and security agencies to make the protection of life and property the overriding priority.”

    I guess Toews must have told them to just use a contractor for the torture stuff!  That ought to keep him from getting the black ops stuff on his hands. 

  3. Mr. Kenney is exactly right.  We should oppose torture and refuse to engage in it, but if information is passed to us which could save lives, what can it possibly gain us not to use it?  Is the Opposition/Wherry (redundancy?) suggesting that CSIS should let Candians die by turning up its nose at information with a poor pedigree?

    • Should we use the medical information gained by torturing Jews during the Holocaust?

      • Torture is wrong…..  Using information gained through the use of torture is also wrong.

        And furthermore, no one can be sure that information gained through torture has any validity whatsoever. 
        I find the government’s position both cowardly and reprehensible.

        • This is like saying “murder is wrong, therefore inheriting my rich uncle’s money because he was murdered is also wrong.”

          One can bring good out of evil without condoning the evil.

          • Oh please….unless you murdered your uncle, inheriting his money is irrelevant.

          • Precisely.  And unless you tortured your uncle, inheriting the information he gave up is irrelevant.

          • @Gaunilon:disqus 

            No, sorry….you personally didn’t torture the Jews….but to use the information is to be complicit in the act.

            This was decided years ago…pay attention.

        • So conversely, seeing a report which shows a time and a place where terrorists plan to blow up children being given candy to on the street, and ignoring it and standing by to watch the children be blown apart (if that information was not obtained correctly) is “good”?

          As for the “no one can be sure” argument, putting aside the fact that there are hundreds of reports of actionable intelligence stopping terrorists murders, by setting the apparant impossible standard of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that such children wouldn’t be killed before the intelligence can be used, appears itself to be not only reprehensible, but also (to use your term) cowardly.

          Howso is it cowardly?  Well, one is creating the appearance that if it is “certain” that the children would be killed, then the intelligence can be used, but given that such certainty could never practically be proven in advance (only lamented in its lack of use after-the-fact), one is using false appearances to escape the moral responsibility of effectively advocating for the childrens’ murders in all practicality.

      • A very valid question, and I don’t mean to make light of what is a non-obvious question of moral philosophy. But once an immoral deed is done, all one can do is bring as much good from it as possible. That includes saving lives, as long as one neither condones nor supports the evil act which brought the information to light.

        So regarding foreign intelligence gained by torture, it would be immoral to support or encourage the method by which this information is gained in any way (including paying for it), but not immoral to use the information to do good if it falls into our hands.

        To sum up: the end does not justify the means, but neither do the means render the end worthless.

        • “As long as there is a market for information derived from torture,” he posited, “torture will exist.”

          • Quite.  And so long as one does not support or encourage torture in any way, one is not contributing to that market.

          • But one is if one listens to it.

          • It’s what is called an ethical dilemma. Which suggests that there are arguments on either side of the issue, and the most ethical solution is not clear.

          • Yes, I know

          • Nonsense.  Whatever answer or opinion Emily gives is the correct one.  Just ask Emily.

          • Do you come on here for any other reason than to bitch to me?

          • Then why did you ask the question?

          • Not clear why you raised the tortured Jews question, Emily.

          • ???  It was rhetorical.

          • But, um, the rhetorical power of your question is limited if the answer is not clear, wouldn’t you agree?

          • @MaggiesFarmboy:disqus 

    • It is interesting to note that the argument Toews employs is using something which has never been shown to exist and is unlikely to (reliable information only obtainable through torture which directly saved lives) resulting in effect of enabling the very behaviour we claim to condemn and purport to seek to avoid.

      • Where exactly is Toews saying anything about information that can only be obtained through torture?  This discussion is about whether we can ethically use information which might have been obtained (by someone else, without our support or consent) through torture.

        • But we shouldn’t.

    • That makes a big assumption – that the evidence is any good in the first place? If you are talking about watching someone or taking some premptive action to stop a developing threat or scare someone off based on received info, that’s most likely no problem and prudent. But if you’re talking about arresting and locking someone away on flimsy evidence that he can’t see or refute, and with little or no due process because someone squealed in Syria because he had little or no choice, you are completely out of court.
      And there’s still the question of whether we are guilty by omission by accepting and knowingly using uncorroborated evidence, and even allowing some of our citizens to be sent overseas in order to feed the system. I guess to some extent it is a matter of what you do with any evidence and how far you are willing to go with something you suspect may be not true or tainted.

      • Whether the info is dependable or not is another question, and I’m sure CSIS is capable of assessing that before decisions are made based on it.

        The issue here is not one of practicality (i.e. whether info is reliable) but one of ethics (i.e. whether info should be used regardless of whether it’s reliable). I am agreeing with Mr. Kenney that (a) we should not support or encourage torture in any way, including not paying/trading anything for information gleaned from it, but (b) if such info falls into our hands, there is nothing unethical about using it, particularly since lives might be saved.

        • However practicality is part and parcel of the ethics.  Do we bend ethically for something that evidence has shown generally isn’t practical?

          After all, if we agree to use the information from torture, we are condoning the use of torture where it provides information.  We can’t exactly say, “Oh, you guys really shouldn’t have done that, but since you have, we’ll take that information, and thanks!” Not with any sort of believability.

          Now, if we knew that the information we’d get from torture was good and useful information, that’d be a much harder ethical dilemma. Fortunately, we do not, and in fact we know that most of the time, it’s crap.  This means that instead of there being an ethical dillema between causing suffering to alleviate suffering, we have torture being a simple cruelty that does no good whatsoever, and should be condemned at all times.

          This also means that we can concentrate our limited resources on means that work to find threats, show these methods and their success to other nations that rely on torture, and hopefully have them figure out it’s more efficient to not use torture in the first place.

        • But i made a distinction here you haven’t addressed. Sure use any and all info to check someone out or deter them, but really, seriously, going after someone[ as in Arar] on uncorroborated evidence is wrong.
          Obviously i don’t agree with your veiw that CSIS has the capacity or even the desire to throughly check out all source material…we haven’t the capacity or resources of the cia or mi5 or 6.Furthermore i’ll bet dollars to donuts we do buy/trade for info once we are seriously investigating someone and we arn’t all that particular about it’s provenance.

  4. “Mr. Speaker, information obtained by torture is always discounted,” he told the House. “However, the problem is whether one can safely ignore the information if Canadian lives and property are at stake.”
    So, the information is always discounted, except when it isn’t.  That clears things up.

    Normally, that type of reasoning would give me a headache, but this is Vic Toews we’re talking about, so it’s just par for the course.  The fact that Toews is either ignorant of the meaning of the word “discounted” or ignorant of the meaning of the word “always” doesn’t surprise me in the least.

    • His idea of “discounted” may be that we got it at 50% off.

  5. Better to turn away actionable intelligence to save a schoolbus full of children from being scorched to death, than to soil one’s high minded ideals regarding the “proper” way to obtain intelligence in what should be a gentlemenly war against the head chopping jihadists, so says our intellectual “betters”.

    • And other Con fantasies.

    • 1. Life is not Hollywood.  The odds of someone giving up actionable information of that nature under torture when it’s useful are minute at best.
      2. Life is not Hollywood.  We don’t have limitless resources to pursue every wild-goose chase story some poor sap made up so he could get out from being tortured for a while. After all, what if while pursuing this “actionable intelligence” about a schoolbus being scorched that turns out to be fake, we end up missing the sarin gas deployed in an actual school?
      3. Life is not Hollywood.  Even our guys aren’t perfect, they might be tempted to make use of torture..or to make use of those who do.. if they’re not getting answers they want and their supervisor’s breathing down their neck (re: Arar)
      4. Life is not Hollywood. In real life there are consequences to our actions. Which enemies are likely to fight harder? Those who know they may be tortured for whatever information they may or may not have, or those who know they’ll be given decent treatment if captured.  Perhaps you hate our soldiers, but me, I’d rather give the enemy every reason to surrender sooner rather than later.

      In short, try living in the real world.. not some Hollywood fantasy.

    • Please name one instance where this has ever happened.

  6. Totallty Depraved People. Give them some more Viagara, heart attacks happen eh?

  7. ” Doesn’t almost everything CSIS investigates have to do with the security of “life and property?” And how is information received from known or suspected torturers screened to ensure only information about threats to “life and property” is acted upon?) ”

    Exactly my point on the other thread. If everything is likely to be a priority that rather deflates the bilge about “exceptional circumstances.”

    I don’t know how it works but i suspect we get most of our stuff from the Brits and the US, who are very unlikely to tell us who tortured whom[ although you might think they would red flag some obvious stuff for us, being allies and all?]. This likely make it really difficult to prove or discriminate between that which is trust worhty and that which isn’t – for us anyway, as i said maybe our allies are helpful in that regard?Maybe not!
     The bottom line is risk assessment is all we have. But if the risk is invariably high, just when or ever can or do we discount torture evidence? This must be a potential nightmare as torture evidence is known to be routinely unreliable.
    I’m still completely lost as to why the govt issued this directive to CSIS. Surely they were already following a similar protocol? Or is this once parsed an order to consider ALL infomation at ALL times no matter the source? Since you can only discount something when you know more or less for sure what it is and whether it is reliable or not..Maybe CSIS asked for clarification or maybe CSIS balked and this is the slapdown?

  8. I don’t understand why this stupid moral posturing is still going on. 

    Harper cannot advocate torture as it’s obvious he would pay a political price having to contend with left-leaning moralists. However, for any PM to fully rule out torture, and to rule out use of information gained through torture even if such information would obviously save Canadian lives and property, would be guilty of dereliction of duty. Harpers first responsibility is to Canada, the Constitution and Canadians, not to some distant land populated by raving lunatics who want to destroy and remake Western society.

    • And again, if the use of information from torture was in any way reliable, you’d have a point.

      As it is, torture information will primarily be a waste of useful resources, condoning use of torture used as a rallying cry for our enemies to fight rather than surrender, and our acknowledgement of information gained from torture lends credence to the (wrong) idea that useful information can be gained from it, thus encouraging our enemies to use it to.

      If Harper’s first responsibility is to Canada and Canadians, then we must reject torture or the use of it because it does nothing to protect our land, wastes our security resources causing us to be more vulnerable, and makes it more dangerous for our troops.

  9. Such a proud day for Canada.

    Does the government intend to formally revoke our status as a signatory to the Geneva Convention?