the habit of secrecy

When Master Corporal Anthony Klumpenhouwer, a member of Canada's JTF2 commando force, died in Afghanistan, the military told his family the 25-year-old had fallen to his death from a guard tower.

When Master Corporal Anthony Klumpenhouwer, a member of Canada’s JTF2 commando force, died in Afghanistan, the military told his family the 25-year-old had fallen to his death from a guard tower. Months later, when his brother first saw the death certificate, he learned that the real cause of death was electrocution.

Why did the military cover up the cause of Klumpenhouwer’s death? According to military spokeswoman Major Paule Poulin, “There was no negligence involved in the incident because it was not possible for anyone to have known that there was an electrical problem with the tower until after the incident.”

If this is true, and it may be, then there’s only one obvious explanation for the army’s secrecy about this young man’s death: habit. The military is, by its nature, protective about information. Loose lips sink ships, and loose facts endanger lives, missions, and sometimes careers. In such an environment, guarding information becomes the norm.

In what may or may not be a more serious case involving the JTF2, one member of that force has brought forward an accusation against someone – we know not whom, nor of what they stand accused – which has sparked three investigations. For the past two years, the matter has been tied up in a board of inquiry, which according to Scott Taylor, editor of Esprit de Corps magazine, is “almost the internal effect of a gag order. It’s to prevent people from going out to the media or saying anything.”

Now there may be valid security concerns to justify the intense secrecy around this case, but there’s an equal chance that military brass are protecting reputations, or quite simply being secretive out of habit. The public may never know.

The natural tendency of the military to protect information is a matter of some significance for Canadians as we watch the latest round of generals lining up to dismiss allegations that our troops might have handed prisoners over to the risk of torture at the hands of the Afghan secret police.

Let’s keep it in mind, for instance, when we read that Major-General Michael Ward told the Military Complaints Commission this week that the Afghan secret police, the NDS, is a “very highly thought of organization,” contradicting a multitude of human rights reports which denounce them as torturers. Ward may have nothing to hide, but he’s a general, and by their nature generals don’t tell the public any more than they think we need to know.

The fact that we are still relying on the testimony of generals in our attempts to clarify the Afghan detainee affair illustrates a crisis in Canadian democracy. The ruling Conservatives and the Liberal Party of Canada have struck a deal that circumvents Speaker Peter Milliken’s April ruling calling for complete disclosure of documents surrounding the release of prisoners into Afghan hands.

The deal, cobbled together by the two parties who may or may not be complicit in war crimes, depending on what the hidden files contain, lets the parties hide behind the same bogus claims of cabinet privilege and national security against which Milliken originally ruled. The party in power, an institution almost as given over to the habit of secrecy as the army itself, gets to decide what evidence may be brought forward, in a case where they themselves may be the defendants.

This story descended into farce long ago. Liberal collusion now makes it unlikely that Canadians will ever see the memos, e-mails and legal briefs which are alleged to contain evidence that cabinet members knew we were sending prisoners into torture chambers, in violation of international law.

Trotting out generals to gainsay evidence that has been corroborated by international human rights groups, the Afghan Human Rights Commission, and even the US State Department, will not suffice. The hard evidence is in the documents, and the documents are sealed. Canadians still don’t know if our leaders are war criminals covering their tracks, or simply members of a habitually secretive organization, keeping secrets out of habit.

Either way, we have no business letting them get away with it. This is a matter of the highest seriousness, involving the possible torture and murder of both enemy combatants and a by-catch of innocent men. It involves allegations of war crimes against our soldiers and our most senior political leaders. With so much at stake, will we really let secrecy prevail?

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.