Can Blog


10 October 2008

Canadian Election Offers a Cautionary Tale for Politicians on Both Sides of the Atlantic

The growing economic crisis has sparked considerable discussion about its political implications on both sides of the Atlantic. With several weeks to go until the American election, there is another western democracy that is heading to the polls next week with the results offering a potential preview of the political dynamics elsewhere. On Tuesday 14 October, Canada holds a federal election. Called by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it appeared six weeks ago that his Conservative government was well positioned to move from its minority status in the Canadian parliament to a majority government. Then the meltdown hit. As with John McCain, Harper appeared slow to react and initially downplayed the severity of the crisis. That appears to have been a costly mistake.

The Conservatives had long been preparing to make a concerted effort to win a majority government. For months the opposition Liberals and their leader Stéphane Dion had been targeted in Conservative attack ads. The strategy seemed to be working as the Conservatives jumped ahead after the election began, particularly in swing ridings the party needed to capture to move into majority territory.

What the Conservatives did not anticipate was how quickly the economic crisis would strike, inspiring anxiety among voters in its wake. Harper, conscious of his government becoming the scapegoat for problems that began elsewhere, downplayed what was underway. Making his matters worse, his government failed to respond in a meaningful way to the economic meltdown. The opposition parties were quick to pounce, deriding the lack of a government response and Harper’s apparent ignorance of the suffering of ordinary Canadians. While there has not been a dramatic shift in the polls, the Conservatives have clearly moved from being positioned to win a majority government to back solidly in the minority territory.

In a time of profound anxiety then voters appear to be moving toward left-of-centre parties and away from those associated with governments. This same trend has emerged in the United States with support shifting from the Republicans and John McCain to the Democrats and Barack Obama. For the Labour government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown the pattern in these fellow democracies offers mixed messages. There seems to be a backlash against parties and governments that have embraced unfettered free enterprise. At the same time, the Brown government has stewardship over the economy and will have to bear the backlash against politicians who governed as the economy burned. The one saving grace may be a decisive response to address the health of the economy. Failing to respond, as suggested in Canada and the United States, is potentially lethal politically.




20 February 2008

The Clintons' Alamo: All Eyes will be looking toward Texas

With Barack  Obama’s ninth and tenth straight victories last night, the end game to the nomination is about to begin. And his path to victory runs through Texas on March 4 (Ohio seems a bigger hurdle although the polls there are tightening and in some ways the state resembles Wisconsin where Obama beat Clinton in her core demographics last night, particularly blue-collar voters). James Carville, a Clinton advisor, has already gone on record as saying that his candidate needs to win Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania to win the nomination. He did so, undoubtedly confident that she would do so, but the polls in Texas have closed dramatically and the impact of the victories last night again continues the impression that Obama has all of the momentum and is the candidate of choice.
As Canuckistan has been pointing out endlessly for the last few weeks, there is a real movement and excitement behind Obama that is lost in a land awash with cynicism that is the United Kingdom. It is excitement over Obama’s ethnicity but it is also the fact that he represents true generational change—an end, hopefully once and for all, to the demographic scourge known as the baby boomers who have had a stranglehold on the mechanisms of society, be they political or cultural. Nowhere is the fact that Obama is leading a movement more evident than in his success at fund raising. This success has been written off out of ignorance by commentators on this side of the Atlantic (hello Johann Hari) as further evidence of how big money controls American politics. In fact, Obama’s success demonstrates the exact opposite. As the New York Times and other media outlets have repeatedly pointed out, his money to a large extent is coming in from ordinary people not the rich and corporations. These are people who are contributing not because they hope to influence policy and get a share of the spoils but because they genuinely believe in the candidate.
This is what the Clinton campaign is up against and why it is in such trouble. It is also why it is out of desperation resorting to tactics to ensure its ultimate victory. Essentially the Clinton campaign is pursuing a three-track approach to victory, all of which are extremely fraught with the danger for the Democratic Party as a whole and could rip the party apart for the presidential election:
1. Increasingly sling mud at Obama hoping that some of it will stick- the mud is often flung not by the candidate herself but her surrogates. Hence, the emphasis on Obama’s lack of experience in relation to Clinton even though he has been in elected office longer than her when his state electoral success is included or the even more desperate plagiarism allegation. The danger in this is that if Obama gets the nomination he will be wounded. On the other hand, if Clinton gets the nomination, Obama’s key demographic supporters, the young and African Americans, could well be driven into alienation and not turn out to vote in November.

2. Lobby publicly and privately behind the scenes to allow the results of Florida and Michigan to count even though candidates agreed that  they would not campaign in these states and Obama’s name was not even on the Michigan ballot. The fact that Julian Bond, the head of the NAACP, wrote a letter calling for the states to be counted so as to not disenfranchise minority voters is a clear effort to pretend that this measure is really about fairness and not about Clinton getting the nomination. If the delegates are reinstated and allow Clinton to get the nomination (and this seems increasingly unlikely) this would create a firestorm of protest within the Democratic Party and again run the risk of alienating Obama’s key demographic supporters who the party needs to turn out in the fall to vote. It creates the impression of old-style politics and a candidate in the form of Clinton who is so desperate to win that she will resort to any tactic.

3. Rely on Super Delegates to push her over the top. The Clintons are well connected to the party establishment and thus at the moment have a majority of the super delegates who have pledged. However, for the super delegates to push Clinton over the top in a situation where Obama won more votes and delegates from the party rank-and-file once again will tear apart the party and drive away Obama’s supporters in droves.
So the Clintons will be keen over the next two weeks in Texas to rally the faithful, perhaps even by invoking the Alamo. But they should not forget that while the Alamo served as a rallying cry to Texans fighting against Mexico, the actual battle itself resulted in the deaths of all of the fort’s defenders and its capture by the enemy.  

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8 February 2008

Bugging Me

Rarely have I heard a more ridiculous discussion than this seemingly endless chattering about whether “intercept evidence” should be allowed in English criminal trials. (A separate debate is the extent that such interceptions should be occurring in a democratic society in the first place. I’m not going to go there except to say that the extent of the use of electronic surveillance in a domestic setting is generally overrated—it is more likely that if you are under surveillance the spy will not be an impersonal piece of technology but a friend or colleague, but I digress.)  In typical simplistic fashion the media (and apparently the government) has credulously accepted the key argument against allowing the evidence in court: that it will reveal the methods employed by Britain ’s secret agencies.

Spare me! Would anyone involved in terrorism have any doubt that their conversations could possibly be monitored in a sophisticated fashion, whether in an enclosed space or even outdoors. They would assume that they are under surveillance, unless they’re idiots. The other missed point, and one that reflects a continual pattern of insularity in the United Kingdom that serves as another of my pet peeves, is the fact that it is rather common elsewhere to use such evidence. How do intelligence agencies in other democracies possibly cope with such disclosures? Surely, the argument being made in the U.K. would apply elsewhere. Where is at least some effort by the media to provide, God forbid, some sort of wider context to this endless discussion? Instead, the press with few exceptions (and there is a parallel to way they accept without question terrorism statistics) happily spats out whatever excuse the intelligence services come up and the government, which seemingly should have control over the intelligence agencies and not the reverse, allows the intelligence services to, in effect, have a veto over policy as chosen by democratically elected representatives. It is a troubling sign of the true lack of accountability in British society of these secret agencies and one that would not be tolerated in either Canada or the United States where oversight is far stronger and more transparent than the pathetic efforts that pass for oversight on this side of the Atlantic .

Now there is a second, and far more relevant, reason being offered for why intercept evidence shouldn’t’ be allowed. It is the question of resources. This is a reality that never emerges in Hollywood accounts of the operation of spy agencies. Technological surveillance is expensive. It is expensive not just in terms of the equipment being used but also in the human resources required to maintain the tools and, eventually, produce the final product. For instance, someone has to produce the transcripts from what could amount to hours of largely meaningless conversation and then check the accuracy of what emerges. Cost is an important reason why electronic surveillance is not used as frequently as the public seems to assume and why human surveillance in the informers are the cost efficient way of spying. Cost is also likely the real reason of the reluctance of the Security Service to allow intercept evidence. In other words, they can’t be arsed but they can’t say this.  Instead, the fiction of revealing methods is deployed and the gutless government and compliant media embrace it.   




30 January 2008

Canada's Afghanistan Problem

Canadian soldiers keep dying in Afghanistan (78 so far, putting Canada 9 behind the UK and proportionately based on population at a higher level than the U.S.) and the issue keeps getting more difficult for the Canadian government to handle. There are a number of issues at play.


First, there is the question of how long Canada will keep the combat troops in Afghanistan it has based around Kandahar.  Originally agreed to by the then Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin, an open-ended commitment became a commitment only to 2009. Then, in October 2007, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government established a commission under the leadership of a former Liberal cabinet minister, John Manley, to look at the question of what would come next.  The expectation was that Manley might provide an out for the government while potentially splitting the opposition.


Manley partially delivered. His commission said that Canada’s combat mission could continue past February 2009 provided that other NATO countries commit more troops before that date and that the Canadian government itself commit more resources, including helicopters and unmanned drones, to the cause. The report also called for more effort to go into non-combat-related rebuilding efforts, a point being pushed by the opposition parties. In that sense Manley provided Harper with a wedge (which he has now grabbed) to use against Canada’s NATO allies with the threat of Canadian withdrawal if assistance isn’t forthcoming. Of course, a reduction of the Canadian commitment would anger Washington and one of the reasons for the Canadian efforts in Afghanistan in the first place was to demonstrate loyalty to Washington’s efforts in the region (not including Iraq). From Washington’s perspective, the removal of Canadian troops would come at the worst possible time.

Then there is the Canadian domestic political scene and more than any other single factor is having an impact on Canadian government policy. The Harper government is a minority one and thus needs support from opposition parties to pass any legislation, let alone something related to Afghanistan. Two of the opposition parties, the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois, are opposed to any extension of the Canadian combat role. Thus, it comes down to Canada’s main opposition party, the Liberals, who started the Afghanistan mission in the first place.

Where the Liberals will go remains unclear but other aspects aren’t so blurred. Public opinion polls show that a majority of Canadians are opposed to Canada’s continued presence in Afghanistan. The most opposed place in all of Canada is the province of Quebec, and this is where a perfect political storm exists. Quebec is opposed. This year may be an election year. To win a majority government both the Conservatives and Liberals need to win seats in Quebec more than any other province. Then comes the cherry on top of this political sundae. The main Canadian unit currently in Afghanistan is the Royal 22e Régiment, more commonly known as the “Van Doos.” As the nickname (Van Doos=vingt et deux) suggests, this is a predominatly Franocophone unit. Its headquarters is in Quebec City. And, reflecting this reality, the names of the Canadian dead over the last few months have a distinctive Francophone flavour to them.

Making the situation even worse politically for the Harper government have been recurrent human rights’ issues surrounding the Canadian Afghan mission. Canadians, and this accounts in part for the opposition to the military involvement, have imagined their nation post-1945 as not just distinctly peaceful but as a peacekeeper. In that sense, the Afghanistan mission, even with efforts at humanitarian aid, fails the test.  Doubling so are troubling questions surrounding the treatment of prisoners captured by Canada. The issue has been around since Canadian troops first went in as they initially and controversially turned prisoners over to the United States. Now the controversy surrounds the treatment of prisoners turned over to Afghani govenrment forces. Evidence of their torture by Canada’s Afghan allies has been discovered and the Canadian military apparently stopped transferring prisoners in November.  This is a sensitive issue for Canada because of the torture and murder of Somalian prisoners in the 1990s at the hands of Canadian soldiers.  Concern about Afghan detainees, downplayed by the government, had previously been expressed by opposition members and human rights groups and the fact that the military also was concerned about it did not seem to support government denials.

Attempting to ride to Harper’s rescue was his Alistair Campbell, communications director Sandra Buckler. She did so by the age old strategy of passing the buck, claiming last Thursday that the military had not informed the government of its policy change. A claim the military would not have informed the government about such a sensitive issue seemed incredulous, and the military was having none of it and fired back with reporters outside of an office door able to hear an official from the Department of National Defence literally screaming over the telephone at flunkies in the PM’s office. Buckler quickly claimed she misspoke and then refused to say anything more on the grounds of operational security. The government as a whole probably wishes it could take a similar vow of silence but it will soon have to make some difficult decisions that will affect its position in Afghanistan, its relationship with Washington and its NATO allies, and its poltitical future.

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16 January 2008

Another Twist in the Campaign Trial: The Significance of the Michigan Result  

Just when it appeared that the Republican race had launched a coherent media narrative (the comeback senior citizen John McCain gathers momentum toward what will eventually be his party’s nomination), along came the Wolverine state.  Here Mitt Romney corrected his floundering campaign to the cheers of conservatives everywhere. 

Now, of course, the media will be all about Romney’s new momentum and the decline of McCain.  Such kneejerkishness should receive a reaction of scorn that it deserves for the Michigan result means no such thing beyond weeks more of breathless media accounts of the epic Republican battle. You see, Michigan was neither as big of a victory for Romney nor as big of a defeat for McCain as the pundits will proclaim. And the Republican Party is once again wallowing in the midst of a general apathy that does not speak well to its chances for an ultimate triumph in November.

One reason that the significance of the Michigan outcome should not be overplayed is that this was an open primary --- independents and even Democrats could turn up on election day and vote for their favourite Republican candidate. This may well have skewed the results. (The farce of the Democratic Party 'contest --- Hillary Clinton was largely running against herself,  eventually winning although Fox News took great pleasure in pointing out early on that her battle with “Mr. Committed” was too close to call --- freed up even more voters to participate in cross voting.) For cynical Democrats, casting a ballot for Romney allowed them to turn their enemy party’s race back into a horse race, given the notion that Romney, despite having oodles of his own money to spend, would have packed in his candidacy with a loss in Michigan. The Republicans would have to devote more weeks of big spending on advertising and other resources in an effort to win the nomination. Indeed, Markos Moulitsas on his Daily Kos website called upon Michigan Democrats to vote for Mitt to help keep him in the race.  

A bigger test for both Romney and McCain will be in South Carolina on January 19 and in Florida on January 29. Both are much closer to “Super Tuesday” on February 5 when a number of states, including California and New York, hold their primaries. It is also in South Carolina where the true strength of Mike Huckabee’s evangelical-themed campaign will be apparent and in Florida where Mr. 9/11, Rudy Giuliani, has staked the life of his campaign.

As for the Republican Party, its poobahs need to be concerned about another primary where party members are not turning out.  Unlike the Democrats, who are fired up to take back the White House later this year, the Republicans, reflecting their President’s similar drifting, appear to have dozed off and lost any enthusiasm for the fight. And some conservative commentators are extremely worried about the fate that this portends. 

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10 January 2008

Pakistan : The United Kingdom’s Centre of the War on Terror

Forget Iraq and Afghanistan , as the chattering classes are becoming increasingly aware, it is Pakistan that is at the centre of western security concerns on multiple levels. Both the Economist and Time have Pakistan-related stories on their front cover (the former conveys the story with the image of a grenade)  60 Minutes gave President Pervez Musharraf’s the lead off on Sunday night ahead of a contract killer and baseball player Roger Clemens.  Pakistan is the focus right now because of the murder of Benazir Bhutto and because, as we are constantly reminded, it is an unstable nation containing both nuclear weapons and a reconstituted al-Qaeda.

Pakistan has even emerged as an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. Recently the candidates were graded on their responses to the assassination of Bhutto.  Before that 

Barack Obama triggered controversy when he said as President he would strike at al-Qaeda on Pakistani territory with or without the permission of that country’s government. Of course, the Bush administration has already struck at al-Qaeda on Pakistani territory. In 2005, for instance, a suspected al-Qaeda operative was killed by a missile fired from CIA-controlled drone. Then, almost two years ago exactly, CIA missiles killed a number of people in a Pakistan village in a failed effort to eliminate Ayman al-Zawahiri. More recently, the New York Times reported that the Bush administration at its highest levels is debating about using the CIA and American military even more aggressively in parts of Pakistan against al-Qaeda. The U.S. has also floated recruiting tribes in the fight against al-Qaeda along the lines of what has been done in Iraq . The strategy may have suffered a setback when eight tribal leaders organizing peace talks between militants and the Pakistani military in South Waziristan were killed in coordinated attacks.

Less attention has been paid to the implications of Pakistan to the United Kingdom in terms of the battle against international terrorism. There’s another point about Pakistan that makes it far more relevant to the United Kingdom in terms of a threat than Iraq ever was (at least before it was invaded) as I point out in The British War on Terror. Even before 9/11, Britons of Pakistani background were radicalized about and involved in the fight over Indian-controlled Kashmir . Reportedly several hundred Britons fought in Kashmir during the 1990s as part of this cause and India ’s High Commissioner to the U.K. warned in 1994 of the involvement of young British Muslims in this type of activity. In December 2000, most notoriously, Birmingham born and raised Mohammed Bilal allegedly murdered several people through a suicide bombing at an Indian military base in Indian Kashmir. A majority of members of the radical al-Muhajiroun between 2000 and 2003 were Britons of Pakistani heritage. The organization once claimed to have funneled a number of British Muslims into fighting for the liberation of Kashmir .  Even more significantly, since 9/11 many of the major plots in the UK , including the suicide bombings of 7/7, have had strong connections to Pakistan .

The combination of al-Qaeda reconstituted in Pakistan, including with training camps, and simple demographics—British Pakistanis, many of whom come from Kashmir, represent the second highest group of British Asians living in the U.K. (of the 1.6 million Muslims in Britain, 750,000 are Pakistani, mainly from Mirpur, part of Pakistani Kashmir)—means that Pakistan will be at the forefront of British concerns about terrorism long into the future.   

These factors will also potentially have an impact on the UK ’s relationship with the United States . An estimated 400,000 Britons a year travel to Pakistan , a country where 2002 and 2005, on average 17 percent of Pakistanis had a favourable view of the United States .  It is the Pakistan link to the U.K., including what one official called a ‘human pipeline’ that sends some British Muslims there for terrorism training, that has concerned the American government as it considers new ways that al-Qaeda might strike at the U.S. The concern is the terrorist organization will use the U.K. as a conduit for such attacks.  Problems on the part of British intelligence in monitoring the movement of Britons to Pakistan have not reassured Washington .  Rumours were reported a year ago that Washington was then considering requiring British Pakistanis to obtain special visas that were different from other British citizens in order to travel to the U.S. The Bush administration’s Director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said publicly that his government feared the possibility of terrorist attacks carried out in the U.S. by British or European so-called ‘clean skins.’ The 2006 National Intelligence Estimate warned the Bush administration that terrorists saw ‘Europe as an important venue for attacking Western interests’ along the lines already carried out by ‘extensive Muslim diasporas,’ in Madrid and London. Pakistan will certainly be a centre of international attention in the coming year.


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12 December 2007


It has been a strange ten days to say the least for the Central Intelligence Agency.  Most of the publicity has surrounded the release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) and its modified position on the question of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. Despite the fact that the NIE is the product of the “intelligence community,” the CIA seems to be once again in the sights of some on the right. Why? Because clearly the CIA is either a. incompetent or b. deluded or c. engaged in a putsch to topple the Bush administration by lying about Iranian capabilities in order to undermine the president’s Middle East foreign policy or d. run by crazed leftists or e. all of the above. Now, a Republic Senator is calling for a second “objective” look at the intelligence in the NIE. It is all reminiscent of David Brooks’ New York Times column of November 2004 when he wrote “President Bush is going to have to differentiate between his opponents and his enemies. His opponents are found in the Democratic Party. His enemies are in certain offices of the Central Intelligence Agency.” And, of course, it resembles the reaction on occasions going back decades when CIA intelligence contradicted government policy.                        

There is another story, however, that has been overshadowed by the NIE release and that relates to methods employed by the CIA after 9/11. First, the Washington Post had a detailed story on the use of the CIA of Jordanian prisons and interrogators since 2000 for as many as 12 non-Jordanian prisoners. According to eyewitness accounts, methods used included beating prisoners on the soles of their feet and then making them walk across a floor covered in salt and beating prisoners while they were suspended in the air. "The United States does not transfer individuals to any country if it believes they will be tortured there," said a CIA spokesman who then went on to add somewhat contradictory: "Setting aside the myths, rendition is, in fact, a lawful, effective tool that has been used over the years on a very limited scale, and is designed to take terrorists off the street." The CIA wasn’t always so reluctant to downplay the use of other countries interrogators to extract information from alleged terrorists:

“An invaluable tool, (the CIA)  said, is the practice in which U.S. agencies transfer individuals arrested in one country to another allied country that is able to extract information from them and relay it to the United States.”

-Washington Post, 1 November 2002.


Then came the revelation that the CIA had destroyed tapes of interrogations involving the use of techniques such as waterboarding against two terrorism suspects in 2002. The tapes were destroyed, according to the CIA, to protect the identities of interrogators who might face retribution. Of course, the destruction in 2005, had nothing to do with the negative publicity associated with the release of photos from Abu Grahib prison or with questions over the legality of the methods being used. Nor did they have anything to do with waterboarding being a type of torture according to Senator John McCain, who knows something about torture, and according to an actual CIA interrogator, John Kiriakou. In a story that is just getting traction, Kiriakou stated that he witnessed waterboarding being used against al-Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah in 2002 and that the use of each individual method was specifically authorized by a senior CIA official in Washington (thus ending any chance of a future Abu-Grahib-like defence of torture as having been carried out by a few bad apples) . He added, and one can see this being picked up by the torture supporters, that  this torture “probably saved lives.” They’ll leave out where he later states that he now does not believe in waterboarding “because we’re Americans, and we’re better than that.” As to his point that the use of torture had “probably saved lives,” he said plots were disrupted although details he offered were sketchy and he did not think that they were plots within the U.S.  The Zubaydah case had previously been hyped by President Bush in a September 2006 speech when he cited the al-Qaeda member as an example of where the use by the CIA of an “alternative set of procedures” had yielded important results.


There is a competing account of the use of an “alternative set of procedures” on Abu Zubaydah that provides a very different view of the efficacy of torture. According to Ron Suskind in his book The One Percent Doctrine, Zubaydah was not a senior al-Qaeda planner (he had responsibility for logistics) nor was he sane. While his interrogation did yield some useful information, it also led to a number of wild goose chases across the U.S. because the CIA  “tortured an insane man and ran screaming at every word he uttered.” ( Suskind’s account needs to be taken with a grain of salt as his sources of information clearly appear to have come from the FBI, which has its own grudge against the CIA (get in line right wingers), but it does suggest that the “ticking time bomb” scenario so often favoured by those seeking to justify the use of torture may occasionally turn out to be a bit of a dud.  


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5 December 2007


Despite the United States’ reputation for being a world leader in producing greenhouse gases, per capita Canada is worse. This helps explain the obstructionist position taken by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper against the Kyoto Protocol. It also explains why during the recent Commonwealth leaders’ conference in Kampala Canada blocked any effort to adopt targets for greenhouse gas reduction and why Canada will be blocking similar efforts at the upcoming climate talks at Bali that are designed to established a replacement for Kyoto when it expires. In stalling the Canadian government also helpfully provides cover to the Bush administration which can then point to Canada’s position as evidence that the United States is not alone in resisting efforts to address climate change in a fundamental way.

In terms of domestic politics, the Harper government’s position is problematic to say the least. On one hand, the government’s political base lies in the province of Alberta, Canada’s larger producer of oil and natural gas. Any policy that damages (insert your own definition of what constitutes damage) Alberta’s fossil fuel industry will obviously not be well received in a province that still bitterly recalls efforts by the Trudeau government in the early1980s to “Canadianize” the oil industry.  The fundamental problem for the Harper government is this: to move from its current status as a minority government to a majority one, it needs to win seats in Quebec. Quebec is arguably the greenest province in Canada in terms of its citizens being concerned about environmental issues.  Thus, the Harper government is caught between two diametrically opposed positions. Side with Alberta and lose votes in Quebec and any chance at forming a majority government. Side with Quebec and lose bedrock support in Alberta. 

There is another element to this debate as well. Long ago, Canuckistan warned of the implications of devolution in the UK. Further evidence of these implications will be on display at the upcoming climate talks at Bali. Stephen Harper made Canada’s position clear at the recent meeting of Commonwealth leaders: Canada opposes mandatory targets. The position of Canada reflects the simple fact that, as mentioned above, that at its core the Harper government is a government of Alberta and the Alberta oil industry and, accordingly, binding targets to encourage greenhouse gas reductions are not to be embraced.

So what does devolution have to do with the Harper government and climate change talks in Bali?  It means that more than one voice from Canada will be expressing a position. The government of the province of Quebec, part of the Canadian delegation, will express its support for binding targets, the exact opposite position supported by Ottawa. Quebec is Canada’s second province by population and largest by size so it is not without clout and this is of obvious concern to the Conservatives.  To mollify voters in Quebec and to block political criticism from that province, his response has been to appoint a former separatist premier to the delegation going to Bali. How this will all play out remains to be seen, but it does speak to the implications of devolved federalism and to what the British government might some day experience with Scotland. It also is bad news for those hoping for a concerted effort to combat global warming.  The Harper government is fiddling while the planet burns.

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29 November 2007 


            The men and women in the shadows of suddenly come into the light.  Notoriously secret, particularly in relation to parallel agencies in Canada and the United States, MI5 and MI6 now make regular forays into the public square. This trend, which stretches back into the 1990s, has been repeatedly evident in the last few weeks. Members of MI6 were interviewed last week by a Radio 1 DJ who visited them at their headquarters in London. The past head of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, popped up on Desert Island Discs to spin a few tunes (lots of classical music plus the Stones and White Stripes) and provide reminiscences about her life as a spy (and to take a shot at her predecessor, Stella Rimington, when she made it clear that she would not be writing her memoirs because it was inappropriate). She also proffered a long, pregnant pause in response to whether she was surprised that the Blair government did not listen to the Joint Intelligence Committee’s warning that invading Iraq would increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks against the UK. Not to be left out, last month, GCHQ announced it would target video gamers with ads designed to encourage them to consider a career in intelligence. Finally, MI5 has cooperated with BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera in a two-part programmed entitled ‘The Real Spooks,’ part 1 of which will being airing on Tues. 4 December on Radio 4.

             As mentioned, these interventions are part of a longer trend to provide British intelligence agencies with more of a public presence. However, what the current head of MI5 Jonathan Evans did in early November was different. In a widely covered speech, he warned of the grooming of the young to be terrorists and he updated the number of “terrorists” known to MI5 to 2,000 from the 1,600 named by the aforementioned Manningham-Buller almost exactly a year earlier. Familiar with all of the prevailing secrecy surrounding security forces in the UK, the media happily lapped up this bit of inside information. Its focus then became on the coincidence that Evans’ pronouncements occurred just before the Brown government introduced new anti-terrorism legislation, including the raising of the period of detention without charge from 28 to 56 days.

 What the media didn’t delve into is why we should put any stock into this figure? (There is a question as to why the numbers are being released at all—this is addressed in The British War on Terror that will be appearing on 15 December in time for Christmas. Hint: releasing the numbers represents a form of counter-terrorism.) This is the same agency that ended surveillance on two of the 7/7 suicide bombers because it deemed them not to be a threat. This is the same organization whose director general told senior Labour MPs on 6 July 2005 that a terrorist attack was not on the horizon for London. This is the same organization that lacks the oversight that similar bodies in Canada and the U.S. are regularly governed by. Here are things the media should be investigating: Does the figure released by Evans in his speech represent hard-core terrorists or merely those leaning in the direction of terrorism? What criteria does MI5 use to apply such labels? How good is the intelligence that is coming in? Does MI5 have enough resources to track all those it deems as terrorist threats? And on and on and on. I can’t answer these questions. Nor can the media. Nor can Parliament. But people need to start asking them and they need to start asking them now.  


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Canuckistan explains how the Brown government's desired 56-day internment period for terrorism suspects will make us less safe by making counter-terrorism more difficult.




A new prime minister, a new government, and a new approach … So the Brownites proclaimed with the ascension of their king earlier this year. And yet, over the weeks and months, it has become increasingly difficult to find the differences with the old regime. Initially, there was hope, especially after the failed terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London. The restrained response by the Prime Secretary and Home Secretary were in stark contrast to the Blair government’s continual resort to new legislation as a means of mollifying the baying hounds of the right-wing tabloids. And yet, even then, the differences were not as great as they initially seemed. John Reid of all people made similar reassuring noises at various points as the current Home Secretary has. And the Brown government still has proposed yet more anti-terrorism legislation to add to the following laws that have been passed since February 2001:


 The Terrorism Act 2000

The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill 2001

The Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005

The Terrorism Act 2006


The new legislation is centred on extending the period for the detention of a suspect without charge from the current 28 days to 56 days. This has become the centre of debate surrounding counter-terrorism and terrorism for the last few weeks. The question is why and the answer seems to be political expediency more than domestic security. If it was about security we’d be batting around other more fundamental questions at the moment.  Why, for example, isn’t there a similar debate over the accuracy of the numbers released by the head of MI5 on the number of suspected terrorists who have come to the Security Service’s attention? Why isn’t there a discussion about why MI5 is releasing these numbers? Where is the concern about whether MI5 has sufficient resources to deal with this apparent threat, an especially pertinent question since surveillance on at least two of the 7-7 bombers was dropped because of a supposed lack of resources? Famously, Eliza Manningham-Buller told a group of senior Labour MPs 24 hours before bombs exploded in London in June 2005 that there were no terrorist attacks in London on the horizon. Why has there not been a proper independent inquiry into what went wrong around July 7, an inquiry that might actually improve public safety?

Instead, the media plays the government’s game by making the discussion about 56-days versus 28-days with the bigger picture being lost. How would 56-day internment make Britain safer? The government can respond only in hypothetical situations much the same way that those who justify the use of torture against terrorism suspects invoke examples from the television program 24 or from thin air. The answer is that the 56-day internment will not make us safer because if it is used it will be after an act of terrorism has occurred or after an alleged plot has been broken up. The idea that an individual in an era of control orders and expanded surveillance would be released without charge because of not having enough time to make a case and then will go out into the wider society without receiving any attention from the police and the Security Service and commit an act of terrorism is ridiculous. Even members of the government recognize this. Admiral West, Brown’s new security guru admitted as much this morning in an interview on Today. Less than 2 hours later, after meeting with the Prime Minister, he reversed his position and expressed a belief in the need for 56-days. This must have established a new political record for conversion over policy.

Leaving the important civil liberties implications aside, there is another reason why 56-day internments are folly. Former intelligence officer Crispin Blunt has addressed this directly:

Everything we do in response to terrorism should have two factors in mind.  One is hearts and minds and the other is the flow of intelligence.  ... If you [sic] sitting, say, in a Muslim part of Yorkshire and you are looking at your telephone thinking those three young men that I saw last night outside the garage, maybe I should phone the police? And you've suddenly been presented with the fact that they can be detained for 90 days, does that make you more or less likely to produce that information to the authorities?[i]

Indeed, winning ‘hearts and minds’ is directly connected to generating a flow of intelligence, an area that the UK is clearing failing in according to the out-going head of Counter-Terrorism Command, Peter Clarke. So let’s have a real debate on all of the implications of 56-day internment or even 28-day internment for that matter instead of the current ramblings emerging from Downing Street and Whitehall.


[i]Crispin Black as quoted in Peter Oborne, The Use and Abuse of Terror: The Construction of a False Narrative on the Domestic Terror Threat Plus Indy Article. London: Centre for Policy Studies, 2006), 35.





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I’m literally just off the plane from Canada where the buzzword of the day is “decoupling” as in: Is Canada decoupling its economy from its southern neighbour? Largely ignored in the U.K., nothing short of an economic miracle has happened in Canada in relation to the loonie, otherwise known as the Canadian dollar. From the low $.60s a few years back, one loonie will now get you as much as $1.07 U.S. Talk is the dollar might soon break $1.10. The driving force behind the strength is two-fold: the weakness in the American economy related to house prices, growing government debt, etc. has led to the abandonment of the U.S. dollar in favour of a variety of other currencies. There are also Canada-specific factors, namely booming resource prices driven up by Chinese demand. The end result is a flood of Canadian dollars southward to buy up cheaper U.S. products and, potentially, over the next few months and years, American assets in the form of corporations, property, and bonds. Time will tell whether this remarkable reversal of fortune will lead to greater Canadian political clout in Washington.