Before I start, let me state this, and state it categorically: torture is unacceptable under any circumstance. While we may disagree on what constitutes torture we can all accept that subjecting anyone to systematic and prolonged severe physical and/or psychological pain in order to extract information (or to fulfill some sadistic sickness) is wrong, immoral, and must be rejected. I am going to leave aside the question of whether information obtained under torture is inherently unreliable – that is a much more complicated question – as it is irrelevant.
Torture is torture and it is inhuman. Full stop. It must not be used when it is it must be condemned.
With that as a basis I now, perhaps unwisely, wade into the most recent instance of compensation for Canadians allegedly tortured in Syria based at least indirectly (allegedly) in part on intelligence shared by Canadian agencies with the Syrian government. Two weekd ago, it was announced that three men, Muyyayed Nureddin, Abdullah Almalki, and Ahmed AlMaati, have received a total of $31.3 million for the brutal treatment they allegedly received in Syria in the early 2000s because they were ‘wrongly accused of ties to terrorism’ by CSIS and the RCMP.
Note that I used ‘allegedly’ a lot. I am not accusing the men of lying about their experiences in Syria: I am just stating that we have their word only on this matter and have no way of verifying whether their version is the real one. The Syrians, who have a probably well-deserved horrendous record of mistreatment, have not to the best of my knowledge admitted or denied that it tortured these men and even if they did reject their claims would anyone believe them? My hesitation in accepting the men’s story is, perhaps only a technicality, based on an old intelligence maxim: whatever you are told you try to get corroboration from multiple sources.
Relying on one source is seldom a good idea, even in cases like these. However, on the balance of probabilities and Syria’s track record, it is highly, highly likely they are telling the truth. We can assume for the purposes of this discussion that they were indeed tortured.
What worries me though is that Canada and the Canadian government has started down a very dangerous path of paying out multiple millions of dollars to people who may very well have been horribly tortured but who were not tortured by any arm of the Canadian government. None of these three, nor Omar Khadr, nor Maher Arar, were mistreated by CSIS, the RCMP or any other agency but rather by the Syrians, the Egyptians and the Americans. It is they who are responsible and they who must be held accountable, not the Canadian taxpayer.
Instead, we have decided – sorry, the courts have decided – that cases of torture involving Canadians took place only because Canada decided to share information with the states where the torture occurred. It has been determined, based on very little as far as I can determine, that the intelligence forwarded was the sole excuse needed to subject them to mistreatment (as opposed to, say, the Syrian and Egyptian government’s predilection to torture anyone for no reason at all or the fact that the Americans may have had independent intelligence on these people’s activities). How this conclusion was drawn is beyond me since the true guilty parties have never told their side of the story (nor are they likely to). So Canada decided that the actions of its agencies contributed ‘indirectly’ to their fate. Hence the payouts.
I loath the term ‘slippery slope’ but I do see two potential consequences of these decisions:
a) CSIS and the RCMP may decide to not continue investigations where there is a potential for some mistreatment somewhere at some time to occur and as a result bad people will do bad things.
Furthermore, there is another crucial point that is missed here: in every single case of eventual torture abroad by a foreign power there were reasonable grounds to suspect/believe that the men posed a threat to national security. That is why they were investigated in the first place. None of these Canadians was randomly selected or looked at because they were Arab or Muslim or whatever. They were looked at because CSIS and/or the RCMP had intelligence suggesting they posed a threat and the whole point why the investigation unfolded was to determine whether that intelligence was accurate (spoiler alert: not all intelligence is reliable). If after a complete investigation it is concluded that the threat is not present, the effort ends. This, however, does NOT mean that the initial decision to investigate was wrong. Any suggestion, was made by at least one Conservative MP, that all information ever collected on these men be destroyed underscores a woeful ignorance of how and why investigations are held. The fact that no charges were laid is irrelevant: not all investigations result in arrests and court proceedings.
b) it is not unreasonable nor fiction to imagine that at some point someone will sue the government for the mere fact that s/he was investigated by CSIS/RCMP regardless of torture allegations.
Claims will be made that being subject to national security scrutiny was enough to cause serious psychological pain and suffering that must be compensated for. Watch this space.
In the end it is reasonable to conclude that agencies of the Canadian government should not have shared intelligence with the Syrian government and that the decision to share with any state must be carefully made. It is not, however, reasonable to state that, in the case of Maher Arar, that intelligence should not have been shared with the US government, our best intelligence partner and one from which we get a lot more than we give.
I wish anyone who suffers from torture the very best and hope that they can recover some degree of normalcy, as hard as that will be. I cannot imagine what they went through. But I fear that we have misplaced the blame and have opened the door and established legal precedent for future cases that we may end up regretting.
President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. Phil worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. firstname.lastname@example.org