Friday, May 07, 2010

Prosecuting a Tortured Child

Prosecuting a Tortured Child: Obama’s Guantánamo Legacy
by Andy Worthington,
May 3, 2010

Since coming to power 15 months ago, promising to close Guantánamo within a year, and suspending the much-criticized military commission trial system for terror suspects, President Obama’s zeal for repudiating the Bush administration’s “war on terror” detention policies has ground to a halt.

The rot set in almost immediately, when the new administration invoked the “state secrets doctrine” last February, to combat a lawsuit brought by several men subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and torture, and was sealed last May, when Obama delivered a major national security speech in which he announced that the military commissions were back on the table, and also announced his intention to continue holding some prisoners at Guantánamo without charge or trial.

In November, Attorney General Eric Holder set the seal on the administration’s two-tier justice system for terror suspects at Guantánamo by announcing that five men would face federal court trials for their alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks, but that five others would face trial by military commission, in a revamped version of the “terror courts,” approved by Congress over the summer.

This year, Obama disappointed critics in the United States, and those scrutinizing his activities around the world, by failing to close Guantánamo within a year as promised, and by failing to set a new deadline for the prison’s closure, but last week his administration pressed ahead with what may well be viewed as the single most disappointing failure to repudiate the cruel, chaotic and unjust policies of the Bush administration’s “war on terror”: the trial, by military commission, of Omar Khadr.

A Canadian citizen, Khadr was just 15 years old when he was seized by U.S. forces after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002, in which he allegedly threw a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier, Sgt. Christopher Speer, and was taken first to the U.S. prison at Bagram airbase, and then to Guantánamo, where he remains to this day. I have been covering his case since June 2007, when his first pre-trial hearing took place in the commissions’ first reincarnation, after the Supreme Court ruled in June 2006 that the original version, the brainchild of Dick Cheney and his legal counsel David Addington, was illegal.

For nearly three years, therefore, I have watched as a disturbingly shambolic and misconceived excuse for a judicial system has attempted, without success, to prosecute Omar Khadr, and the many failures of this endeavor have not been resolved through Congress’ tweaking the system last summer.

The shame and disgrace of prosecuting a child

Firstly, and most important, Khadr was a child when seized. This meant nothing to the Bush administration, and it is clear that it also means nothing to the Obama administration either. Back in May 2003, when the story first broke that juvenile prisoners were being held at Guantánamo (and research indicates that at least 22 juveniles were held in total), Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld impatiently told a press conference, “This constant refrain of ‘the juveniles,’ as though there’s a hundred children in there — these are not children,” and General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that they “may be juveniles, but they’re not on the Little League team anywhere. They’re on a major league team, and it’s a terrorist team, and they’re in Guantánamo for a very good reason — for our safety, for your safety.”

This rhetoric played well with those who hold that everyone is accountable for their actions, whatever their age, but in a more enlightened world, of which the United States is technically a part, juveniles — defined as those under the age of 18 when the crime they are accused of committing took place — “require special protection” according to the Optional Protocol to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to which the United States is a signatory. The Optional Protocol specifically recognizes “the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities,” and requires its signatories to promote “the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict.”

It would be difficult to find a more appropriate case of a child who was “particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities” than Omar Khadr, who spent much of his childhood in Afghanistan, taken there by his father, an alleged fundraiser for Osama bin Laden, and yet, as I demonstrated in the first of my weekly columns for The Future of Freedom Foundation, back in October 2008, Khadr has never received “physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration,” because a detailed plan submitted by four doctors to the Defense Department in January 2003, entitled, “Recommended Course of Action for Reception and Detention of Individuals Under 18 Years of Age,” was completely ignored.

The problem of invented war crimes charges

Beyond this most glaringly obvious problem with Omar Khadr’s trial (and his nearly eight years in detention), another fundamental problem with Obama’s decision to proceed with prosecuting a former juvenile prisoner in the first U.S. war crimes trial since Nuremberg concerns the basis of the charges against Khadr. On an intuitive level, critics of Khadr’s trial have, from the beginning, recognized that there is something horribly skewed about redefining the internationally accepted laws of war so that one side in an armed conflict — the United States — can kill whoever it wants with impunity, whereas its opponents are viewed as terrorists, or, when brought to trial, as those who have committed “murder in violation of the law of war.”

Lt. Col. David Frakt, who knows more about the laws of war than Congress or officials in either the Bush or Obama administrations, has long pointed out that the military commissions are fundamentally flawed because they contain ”law of war offenses” invented by Congress, including “providing material support to terrorism” and “murder in violation of the law of war.” As he explained last week, as Khadr’s trial got underway, the latter was introduced by the DoD in 2003, when it was defining the crimes eligible for trial by military commission, as “murder by an unprivileged belligerent.” He added:

This status-based definition conflated two different concepts — unprivileged belligerents and war criminals. Under Article 4 of the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention it is clear that while a member of an organized resistance movement or militia may be an unprivileged belligerent (because of not wearing a uniform or failing to carry arms openly, for example) he may still comply with the laws and customs of war, so not all hostile acts committed by unprivileged belligerents are war crimes. Attacks by unprivileged belligerents which comply with the law of war (in that they attack lawful military targets with lawful weapons) may only be tried in domestic courts. In Iraq, for example, insurgents who try to kill Americans by implanting roadside bombs are properly arrested and tried before the Central Criminal Court of Iraq as common criminals. Attacks by unprivileged belligerents which violate the law of war, such as attacks on civilians or soldiers attempting to surrender, or using prohibited weapons like poison gas, can be tried in a war crimes tribunal.

When Congress revived the commissions in 2006 (after Congress ruled them illegal), “murder by an unprivileged belligerent” became “murder in violation of the law of war.” However, as Lt. Col. Frakt explained, the distinction appeared to be cosmetic, and, crucially, judges in the only two full trials that ever took place (those of Salim Hamdan and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul), as well as the judge in the case of Mohamed Jawad (released in August 2009), rejected the supposed crime, “each ruling that the mere status of unprivileged belligerency was insufficient to prove a violation of the law of war.”

Despite Lt. Col. Frakt’s alerting Congress to these problems last summer, lawmakers left the definition of “murder in violation of the law of war” unchanged in the new version of the commissions, but, astonishingly, DoD officials added an “official comment,” explaining that “an accused may be convicted in a military commission … if the commission finds that the accused engaged in conduct traditionally triable by military commission (e.g., spying; murder committed while the accused did not meet the requirements of privileged belligerency) even if such conduct does not violate the international law of war." In other words, as Lt. Col. Frakt explained, “a detainee may be convicted of murder in violation of the law of war even if they did not actually violate the law of war.”

The first flawed week of Omar Khadr’s pre-trial hearings

This new twist in the absurdly ill-conceived commissions did not permeate the first week of pre-trial proceedings in Omar Khadr’s case, although it will undoubtedly surface should the trial actually go ahead in July, and his defense team has not yet flagged up Khadr’s age on capture as a campaigning issue. Even so, there was more than enough incompetence and manipulation at work to indicate that President Obama’s decision to revive the commissions will, in all probability, lead not only to protracted legal challenges, but also to international indignation at the failure of both the administration and Congress to deliver justice to the prisoners at Guantánamo.

As dozens of journalists geared up for the pre-trial hearings at Guantánamo last Tuesday, having experienced the logistical nightmare that makes trials at the naval base such a poor idea on the basis of expense and practicability alone, they received their first notification of the chaos that, without fail, marks the proceedings as little more than a dark farce. The first day’s hearing was delayed so that everyone could review the commission manual, which was not signed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates until the evening of April 27, and now had to be downloaded and printed out in a part of the world where technology is often stranded in, at best, the late 20th century.

Although Khadr turned up for the delayed start of the first day’s hearings, which commenced on Wednesday afternoon, he essentially boycotted the rest of the week’s proceedings, when, whether deliberately or not, he highlighted the kind of excessive security measures that pass for normal at Guantánamo. On day two, after complaining of eye pain, apparently brought on by conjunctivitis, he refused to don blackout goggles for his trip from his cell to the courtroom in a windowless vehicle, telling his escort, Marine Capt. Laura Bruzzese, “You're trying to humiliate me.” Although he was persuaded to attend later that day, he again refused to attend on day three, complaining that a waistband search for contraband “comes too close to his genitalia in the way it's being done,” as Barry Coburn, one of his military defense lawyers, explained. On Saturday, he refused again, telling Capt. Bruzzese, “I’m not going, nothing is starting at 0730.”

In the courtroom, meanwhile, discussions focused on the reliability of the evidence gathered by the government during Khadr’s interrogations. Khadr’s defense team has long maintained that Khadr, who was badly wounded at the time of his capture, having been shot twice in the back, was subjected to brutal treatment in the U.S. prison at Bagram, and later at Guantánamo, which rule out any self-incriminating statements he may have made as the “fruits of torture.” As I explained in a major review of Khadr’s case in November 2007:

According to his own account, reported by Amnesty International, he “asked for pain medication for his wounds but was refused,” said that “during interrogations a bag was placed over his head and U.S. personnel brought military dogs into the room to frighten him,” and added that he was “not allowed to use the bathroom and was forced to urinate on himself.” Like many other prisoners, he was also hung from his wrists, and explained that “his hands were tied above a door frame and he was forced to stand in this position for hours.” An article in Rolling Stone, in August 2006, added further details, noting that he was “brought into interrogation rooms on stretchers, in great pain,” and was “ordered to clean floors on his hands and knees while his wounds were still wet.”

Most of the above seems to have taken place in Bagram, where brutality was so commonplace at the time of Khadr’s stay there that at least two prisoners died of wounds inflicted by their guards just months after his departure. However, the abuse continued in Guantánamo, where, it should be noted, he arrived around the time that a regime of humiliation, isolation, and abuse, including extreme temperature manipulation, forced nudity, and sexual humiliation, had just been introduced, by reverse-engineering torture techniques used in a military program designed to train U.S. personnel to resist interrogation if captured, in an attempt to increase the meager flow of “actionable intelligence” from the prison. As I explained in 2007:

He told his lawyers that he was “short-shackled by his hands and feet to a bolt in the floor and left for five to six hours,” and that “occasionally a U.S. officer would enter the room to laugh at him.” He also said that he was “kept in extremely cold rooms,” “lifted up by the neck while shackled, and then dropped to the floor,” and “beaten by guards.” In one particularly notorious incident, the guards left him short-shackled until he urinated on himself, and then “poured a pine-scented cleaning fluid over him and used him as a ‘human mop’ to clean up the mess.” As if further humiliation was required, he added that he was “not provided with clean clothes for several days after this degradation.”

In contrast to Khadr’s claims, the government has proposed that he was treated humanely, and that he offered up self-incriminating information voluntarily. Robert Fuller, an FBI agent who interviewed Khadr at Bagram in October 2002, testified on Wednesday that his interrogations of Khadr were “conversational” and “non-confrontational,” adding, “We never put our hands on Mr. Khadr,” and stating that Khadr spoke “openly, confidently and comfortably about al-Qaeda” and admitted to throwing the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer. Fuller’s testimony continued on Thursday, and on Friday, a young female Navy Reservist (identified only as “Agent Number 11”) also spoke about non-coercive interrogations, this time at Guantánamo.

As Michelle Shephard explained in the Toronto Star, the former interrogator told the court that, “over the course of 12 interviews, which began in the prison hospital when Khadr arrived [at Guantánamo] on Oct. 28, 2002, he agreed to talk while they shared M&Ms and fig newtons.” Claiming that she was chosen to interrogate Khadr in the hope that he would relate to her as a “mother figure,” she also stated that their rapport was so good that Khadr told her, “I’d rather be in the booth with you than bored in my cell.”

Whether this is true or not, “Agent Number 11” inadvertently revealed the general futility of cooperating with the interrogators in Guantánamo, when she explained that “He knew if he was cooperative it would expedite his repatriation back to Canada” — a claim that was clearly groundless. She also said that he confessed to throwing the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer “like it was done in the movies,” adding that he said “he checked his watch just before throwing the grenade to note the time.” Military defense lawyer Lt. Col. Jon Jackson challenged this as “odd,” according to Shephard, “especially since … Khadr was bleeding from his head and blinded in one eye by shrapnel by that time” — or, in another possible scenario, was unconscious and face-down beneath a pile of rubble.

Did Omar Khadr throw the grenade?

The question of whether or not Khadr even threw the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer is crucial to his case, of course, and on day three of the hearings (on Saturday), these claims and counter-claims were addressed. Back in March 2008, it was revealed that there were two versions of a report describing the firefight, both written by the commander of the Special Forces unit responsible for capturing Khadr, who is identified only as “Lt. Col. W.”

In the first version, “Lt.-Col. W” stated that the person who had thrown the grenade had been killed, This, of course, would rule out Khadr as the suspect, but in the revised version, “Lt. Col. W” changed a single line to note that the person who threw the grenade was “engaged,” thereby implicating Khadr, who was the only non-U.S. survivor of the firefight. On Saturday, “Lt. Col. W.” testified by video link from the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, claiming that he had changed his report for “history’s sake,” but only because he had initially believed that Khadr had died. He said that he changed it, several years after the event, after being visited by military investigators.

This sounds plausible, but, as Michelle Shephard noted, his revised report “appears to conflict with a March 2004 statement written by a commando identified only as OC-1, which states that after the grenade was thrown he shot two fighters — one fatally,” demonstrating that two men were alive at the time the grenade was thrown (Khadr and another insurgent), and that, as a result, either of them could have thrown the grenade.

How this will all pan out is unknown at present, as the defense team has not yet had the opportunity to present its evidence, including the alarming claim, mentioned above and made last October when Khadr’s defense team released previously classified photos, that Khadr could not have thrown the grenade because, at the time, he was buried face-down under a pile of rubble.

Will a plea deal save Omar Khadr (and Obama) from the perils of a trial?

Pre-trial hearings are continuing this week at Guantánamo, and, to be honest, anything could happen. According to some of the first reports last week, prosecutors offered Khadr a plea bargain before the hearings even began — proposing that he would serve five years in a U.S. prison in exchange for pleading guilty to the war crimes charges against him — but the defense team turned down the offer. However, on Saturday the Washington Post claimed that the Obama administration was actively seeking a plea agreement. A senior official, speaking of the proposed trial in July, which would be the first trial under Obama to go ahead, told the Post, “This is not what you would choose to open with. Khadr has become a cause, and this is not a case that will demonstrate the strength and validity of military commissions.”

This seems rather disingenuous, as the administration clearly knew what it was doing when Khadr’s name was put forward last November, but maybe Obama has finally found his conscience, and is getting cold feet. After all, as Lt. Col. David Frakt declared authoritatively last week:

The Administration's decision to press forward with the first war crimes trial of a child soldier in modern history is unfathomable. That the Administration would then try to ensure a conviction by attempting to rewrite the law to create a new war crime is reprehensible.

If an administration that promised “hope and change” is not definitely to become one tarred as an advocate of the “unfathomable and reprehensible,” Obama needs to move fast. Changing the plea bargain to one that frees Khadr after a much shorter period of time than five years would be a good start; and scrapping the commissions immediately afterwards would be a sensible way to follow up.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press) and serves as policy advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website at:

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Fish Farms Good Enough to Eat

Farmed salmon you can eat with peace of mind
April 21, 2010

Photo: Farmed salmon you can eat with peace of mind

SeaChoice partners with Overwaitea Food Group in 2009 (Credit: Lana Gunnlaugson)

By Bill Wareham, Senior Marine Conservation Specialist


You may have heard your fill about farmed salmon, but I want to tell you an exciting story about one of Canada's leading retailers, which is asking you to fill up on a new farmed salmon product.

After listening to years of debate in British Columbia, this company recognized the problems with open net pen farmed salmon and began looking for an alternative. SeaChoice and many other sustainable seafood programs in North America recommend against buying farmed salmon from open net pens due to negative effects this practice has on the health of our oceans, particularly the proliferation of sea lice and their devastating effect on juvenile wild salmon.

Believing that aquaculture is going to be part of our food security solution, the challenge for the company and SeaChoice was to find producers that farmed fish in a sustainable manner. This is where things get interesting.

In searching for alternative seafood options to meet their commitment to marketing sustainable seafood, the Overwaitea Food Group secured a supply of sustainably farmed salmon branded as "Sweet Spring" from a company in Washington State. These folks produce Coho salmon in an innovative land based closed containment system that uses a freshwater recirculation system, significantly reducing the environmental damage associated with traditional salmon farming. SeaChoice assessed this product and ranked it as a sustainable "Best Choice".

Beginning this Earth Day, Overwaitea Food Group will begin selling this sustainable Coho salmon in their Save-On Foods, PriceSmart, Overwaitea Foods, Urban Fare and Cooper's Foods stores throughout BC and Alberta. I think this is great news, demonstrating that there are creative alternatives for consumers looking for sustainable seafood.

If you're a fish eater, I recommend that you seek out and purchase this sustainably produced Coho salmon and help create a demand that enables closed system salmon producers to grow and profit from a great idea.

Filling Canada's Prisons: Harper Seeks to Follow Mandatory Minimum Sentencing for Marijuana

Bill C-15 could fill Canadian prisons with drug offenders
By Carlito Pablo

Will Bill C-15 kill the twin scourge of illegal drugs and gang violence?


Libby Davis
NDP MP,Vancouver East

“There’s a lot of information, both in the United States and in Canada, that shows that mandatory minimum sentencing regimes for drug offences are ineffective. This is all about window-dressing for the Conservatives’ crime agenda. They want to impress people with their tough-on-crime approach. One thing that will happen is that it could very much overcrowd our prisons. We find the bill to be misdirected and based on a very faulty premise. It’s based on the U.S.’s war on drugs, which has been a complete failure.”

Ed Fast
Conservative MP, Abbotsford

“What Bill C-15 does is it’s connecting the sale of drugs to aggravating factors. If there’s a sale or production or growing of drugs that occurs and violence is present, we will put those guys behind bars. But we also want to make sure that low-level dealers that are dealing in drugs simply because they’re addicted can actually get the help that they deserve. We believe it’s a balanced approach. We’re not going after the marijuana users. We’re going after the guys who really present an ongoing danger to our community.”

Ujjal Dosanjh
Liberal MP, Vancouver South

“Bill[s] C-14 and [C-]15? We have said that we’ll support both of them. We agree with tougher penalties for serious and violent and chronic offenders. But that alone isn’t going to do the job. That’s why we believe this government is failing significantly in their drive to deal with the issue of crime. They’re failing Canadians because they’re not emphasizing crime-preventing, they’re not providing resources for youth programs, they’re not providing actual police officers on the ground, [and] they’re not providing prosecutors.”

Adrianne Carr
Deputy leader, Green Party of Canada

“The Green party doesn’t support mandatory sentencing because it has proven to not work. It’s coming from this tough-on-crime perspective. What we’ve seen is that our court system wastes extraordinarily high resources in prosecuting the petty criminals involved in drug cases, particularly marijuana. We should be legalizing marijuana, which has been suggested by the Senate of Canada and the Fraser Institute, and these are hardly radical institutions. What we have to do is delink the profit motive from drugs.”

On March 2, the Pew Center on the States, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, released a report on the staggering growth of the American correctional system.

Entitled One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, the report noted that “sentencing and release laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s put so many more people behind bars that last year the incarcerated population reached 2.3 million and, for the first time, one in 100 adults was in prison or jail.”

It also cited the tremendous increase in the number of people on probation or parole, such that “combined with those in prison and jail, a stunning 1 in every 31 adults, or 3.2 percent, is under some form of correctional control.”

Why is this relevant to Canada?

“We only need to go south of the border and see a nation that enacted mandatory minimums related to drug offences from the mid-1980s on,” criminologist Susan Boyd told the Georgia Straight. “It didn’t reduce violence and drug use. So here we are saying, ‘We’re going to do this.’ ”

Boyd—an associate professor at UVic and research fellow at the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.—was referring to the reintroduction in Parliament by the Conservative government of a bill that proposes mandatory minimum jail sentences for drug offenders.

If passed into law, Bill C-15 would, among its other provisions, throw people caught with one marijuana plant into the slammer for a minimum of six months. If growing a single plant is done on a property that belongs to another person or in an area where it may present a hazard to children, minimum jail time is nine months.

Worse, the bill seeks to increase the maximum penalty for this particular offence to 14 years.

Vancouver’s so-called Prince of Pot, Marc Emery, who is fighting extradition on charges of selling marijuana seeds to American growers, is a potential U.S. prison statistic.

Emery was handing out leaflets condemning drug prohibition, along with his wife, Jodie, on the south side of the city when the Straight asked him about Bill C-15. “Anything that puts more people in jail for drugs is going to fill prisons,” he said. “It’s a very expensive and failed policy that will only bring us more misery.”

The Pew Center on the States report pointed out that many states in the U.S. “appear to have reached a ‘tipping point’ where additional incarceration will have little if any effect on crime”.

In Washington state, which shares a border with B.C., the report stated, “from 1980 to 2001, the benefit-to-cost ratio for drug offenders plummeted from $9.22 to $0.37.

“That is, for every one dollar invested in new prison beds for drug offenders, state taxpayers get only 37 cents in averted crime,” it noted. “An updated analysis from 2006 found that incarceration of offenders convicted of violent offenses remained a positive net benefit, while property and drug offenders offered negative returns.”

Conservative Abbotsford MP Ed Fast deflected criticism that mandatory jail times haven’t worked in the U.S.

“First of all, on the issue of deterrence there’s contradicting evidence,” Fast told the Straight. “I don’t base my support for the legislation on the deterrent effect. I base it on the prophylactic effect of the legislation. Prophylactic means taking repeat, violent offenders out of our communities for longer periods of time.”

Bill C-15 is a reincarnation of Bill C-26, which the Conservatives introduced in November 2007.

In February 2008, a few months after Bill C-26 was tabled in Parliament, Boyd started sending Prime Minister Stephen Harper a weekly letter in an attempt to educate the Conservative leader about harm reduction and drug regulation.

Boyd did this for a year, and she sent her 52nd and final letter in early February this year. Bill C-15 was introduced on February 27, a day after the Conservatives filed Bill C-14, which toughens penalties for gang-associated violent activities.

As an educator, Boyd has this to say about mentoring Harper: “The prime minister gets a failing grade on drug policy.”
The economics of prisons in Canada

> Total correctional-services expenditures in 2005-06: almost $3 billion

> Share spent on custodial services or prisons: 71 percent

> Associated policing and court costs in 2005-06: more than $10 billion

> Number of correctional facilities in Canada in 2005-06: 192

> Annual cost of incarcerating a federal female prisoner in
2004-05: $150,000 to $250,000

> Annual cost of incarcerating a federal male prisoner in 2004-05: $87,665

> Daily cost of incarcerating a provincial prisoner in 2004-05: $141.78

> Daily cost of alternatives such as probation, bail supervision,
and community supervision: $5 to $25


Sunday, May 02, 2010

Sweeping New Powers

Sweeping New Powers Would Threaten Privacy: Watchdog

BC Government wants to amend law to allow much more collection and sharing of personal data.

By Andrew MacLeod,
25 Mar 2010,


Public bodies would collect, share your personal information without consent.

The British Columbia government wants sweeping new powers to collect and share citizens' private information and store it outside of Canada. Officials argue the powers would help them better serve the public, but a privacy advocate says British Columbians should be worried about the government's plans.

Representatives of the B.C. government presented their 88-page submission to a March 24 meeting of a special committee struck to review the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Such a review happens every six years. The transcript is here.

The government proposes public bodies be able to collect and share people's personal information without their consent. Non-public bodies such as the police, social service providers and non-governmental organizations would be able to do the same.

It would also change the act to allow information to be stored outside of Canada, overturning a provision put in place to protect British Columbians from the long arm of the United States' Patriot Act.

"It's the scope of the thing," said Vincent Gogolek, the policy director for the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association watchdog group. "They really are looking to change the basis of the act to remove people's control over their own information."

'Shared across the universe'
Millennium Water - Home of the Olympic and Paralympic village.

The government's submission says it wants the act amended "to allow for indirect collection by, and disclosure to and between all relevant public bodies, without consent, for purposes of integrated program or activity."

Even non-public bodies including "government and police agencies in other jurisdictions" could indirectly collect and disclose personal information without consent, under the proposal.

This would be done where it's "of benefit to the citizen and necessary to the delivery of the service or program," or for public health and safety.

"They want it shared across the universe," said Gogolek. "NGOs, the RCMP, all over the place. . . They don't want any supervison of that. . . and that's a problem."

The information at stake includes some of the most personal things about people, he said. Information about medical history, mental health, addictions, housing and criminal records would be included, he said. "This is stuff you don't want bouncing around all over the place."

People have a right to keep control of their information and how it is used, Gogolek said, adding it's not good enough for the government to just say, "trust us."

"This will be used monitoring and checking up on people," he said. The government argues that it has become more horizontal and the law needs to change to match its new structure, he said. "I've got a bit of a problem with that and I suspect the committee might have a bit of a problem with that."

The government is making the pitch as it embarks on a $180-million integrated case management system that will be used by both the children and families and housing and social development ministries.

The government has entered a six-year deal with Deloitte Inc. to develop the system, despite warnings the system will create new privacy risks.

Patriot Act worries

Perhaps even more contentious is the provincial government's desire to store more information outside the country.

Here's how the submission to the committee puts the request: "Amend the provisions in the FOIPP Act prohibiting the storage of information outside of Canada to take into account IT developments and advancements that make jurisdictional boundaries artificial."

The change would include, "social networking and other internet tools and mechanisms that can promote stronger citizen engagement and [would] take advantage of commercial and economic opportunities for storage and management of information including 'cloud computing.'"

The provision requiring information stay in Canada dates back to soon after the B.C. Liberals took office in 2001. They were contracting out the management of health records, just as the United States government responded to the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center by bringing in the Patriot Act, parts of which allowed for the collection of large amounts of information.

The province's chief information officer, Dave Nikolejsin, presented the government's submission to the committee. He described why they want the restrictions on foreign data storage changed: "How we are able to do some of our alternative service delivery projects is dictated, because a lot of the organizations that bid on opportunities like that and attempt to do business with us are not Canadian businesses. We have to go through machinations that other jurisdictions don't in order to make sure that the data stays in Canada."

"Alternative service delivery" is the wording the government uses to describe contracting out public services. He named Alberta and Ontario as provinces B.C. competes with that don't have similar restrictions on data storage.

"This was hugely controversial and the government was forced to bring it in because of the Patriot Act," said Gogolek. "The Patriot Act is still there." The president of the United States may have changed, but the law has not, he said.

Expanding definitions

Gogolek also takes issue with a couple of changes suggested by the attorney general and the solicitor general.

One would extend the definition of "law enforcement," allowing public bodies to refuse access to a greater number of records. Originally the idea was to prevent information that would compromise a particular investigation from being released. As Gogolek puts it, you legitimately don't want the U.N. Gang able to request records about how the police are investigating the U.N. Gang.

"They want to expand it from investigations to crime prevention," said Gogolek. That would make lots of records that are now releasable secret, he said. "It's got to be realistic. You can't just raise hypotheticals."

The government also asked the committee to rewrite the law so it can refuse access to security video from jail cells. That would be in direct contradiction to a two-year-old ruling by former information and privacy commissioner David Loukidelis, said Gogolek.

"They seem grumpy about that," he said. Knowing that video from jail cells may find its way into public is incentive for the people who work in jails to follow the law, he said. That incentive would be removed if people knew the footage could never be released, he said. "I don't think it's a good way to go."

The acting information and privacy commissioner, Paul Fraser, is scheduled to present to the committee next week.

Gogolek said his group, which presented to the committee last month, will also be looking for a way to respond to the government's submission. [Tyee]

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.