Edmonton Journal: Unbeknownst to the crowd, Staples was already a watched man

Here is a column that appeared in the Edmonton Journal, and later the Ottawa Citizen, by Journal columnist Sheila Pratt.

Sheila Pratt must have attended the presentation I delivered a year after the controversial Halifax speech that was secretly monitored by the Department of National Defence. In February 2007 I was in Edmonton at the University of Alberta on a panel with a military officer who had his own powerpoint presentation arguing why the public should support the military mission in Afghanistan (it may have even included that photo of the Taliban executing a woman in a soccer stadium).

I recall thinking how unusual it was that a serving military officer was trying to sway public opinion on a policy issue, despite the fact that soldiers are prohibited from commenting on government policy (unless they have approval from the VERY TOP of the chain of command, I guess).   – Steve

Afghan mission has changed

The Ottawa Citizen
Mon 23 Jul 2007
Sheila Pratt
The Edmonton Journal

Last February, about 100 students and other citizens gathered in the Dinwoodie Lounge at the University of Alberta to hear a panel discussion of the role of Canada’s military. The Afghan mission was top of mind.

It seemed like an innocent episode of democracy in action. But maybe more was going on.

Capt. Peter Avis, a soldier with a degree in international relations, spoke for the Department of National Defence. Lauryn Oates, who has worked on women’s rights in Afghanistan since 1996, spoke about development work and efforts to build a civil society in Afghanistan to support women. Lastly, there was Steven Staples, an Ottawa-based defence analyst, and one of the early critics of the Afghan campaign — the guy the Canadian military doesn’t like and had been watching for a year, it turns out.

The Citizen revealed last week that the military monitored Staples’s speeches and appearances, compiled a report on his views and sent it out to 50 top officers. Initially, the defence department denied the existence of the report, but it came to light in the Citizen’s Access to Information request.

“Everyone engaged with communicating on Afghanistan should be made aware of (Staples’s) arguments so they can be better prepared to deal with them,” recommended the report on Staples sent to Lt.-Col. Jacques Poitras at national defence headquarters. So the U of A event, which seemed innocent enough, had another layer to it. Unbeknownst to the crowd, Staples was already a watched man.

An early critic of the Afghan campaign, Staples asked a lot of uncomfortable questions about whether the campaign could be successful. He told the Citizen he wasn’t surprised to find out the military was watching him.

But this doesn’t sit well with a lot of Canadians. The job of dealing with critics should fall to politicians, not the military. At worst, this might intimidate other critics. It will certainly lead people to wonder who else the military has in its sights.

The defence department says it’s just doing its job. “Our job is to make sure we are aware of the information that is floating in the public domain,” said an army spokesperson. At least it was only using public information, we assume.

The revelation about Staples comes just a few days after Canada’s top soldier, Gen. Rick Hillier, took another troubling step. He clamped down on information available to the public through Access to Information requests about the treatment of detainees handed over to the Afghan authorities. Hillier explains the need to withhold information previously released on detainees in order to protect our soldiers.

No one wants operational details that will endanger soldiers’ lives. But there’s a lot of room in between for public information. If we’re fighting for democracy and human rights in Afghanistan, the military shouldn’t quash the transparency and accountability citizens in this country deserve.

It was an Access to Information request that revealed problems in Canada’s system of monitoring the detainees. Without that knowledge, Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor wouldn’t have been forced to make some improvements in that system.

Most Canadians, including this one, agree we must stay in the dangerous combat role to the end of 2009. We can’t break that NATO commitment. But trying to follow Harper on where he’s going after 2009 is like being his dance partner and wearing a blindfold. You’re never quite sure where he’s leading, and he won’t discuss what music is coming next.

A few weeks ago, Harper said he could not extend the combat mission without the support of the Opposition parties. While flipping pancakes in Calgary, he repeated that stand and hinted he was looking at opposition support for a new mission after 2009. What new mission?

“Canadians have been fairly clear that if we were to be in after 2009, that they would expect our participation to evolve …” Harper said. To what? And most important, for how long?

Andy Knight, University of Alberta professor, says Canadians have never had a proper and open debate on the mission from the day the Liberal government committed troops after the 9/11 terror attacks.

The Liberals committed Canada to a UN-approved campaign carried out by NATO, to go after al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It morphed into establishing a democracy in the war-torn country. The fighting has changed, suicide missions previously unheard of in Afghanistan are now taking our soldiers’ lives, development goals are in the back seat and extremists in Pakistan are a huge problem, Knight says.

“Once it becomes a war on terror, it becomes unwinnable by military means,” says Knight. (Is the Defence Department taking notes on this?)

“We need to rethink the mission.”

This time, the Canadian public should have a full and open debate. Harper should be clear about the benchmarks for success and how long it will take to get there.

Sheila Pratt writes for the Edmonton Journal.

E-mail: spratt@thejournal.canwest.com

Tags: Afghanistan, Defence policy, Steven Staples