CANADA

Heated accusations in the Somalia affair

The Liberals continue to fend off attacks

LUKE FISHER in Ottawa April 29 1996
CANADA

Heated accusations in the Somalia affair

The Liberals continue to fend off attacks

LUKE FISHER in Ottawa April 29 1996

Heated accusations in the Somalia affair

CANADA

The Liberals continue to fend off attacks

The week began with recriminations—and ended with an attack on the integrity of the commission of inquiry into the Somalia scandal. On April 15, commission counsel Barbara Mclsaac delivered a broadside at the Department of National Defence (DND) and its lack of co-operation with the inquiry in the matter of missing documents. ‘Time after time, we have received late responses and we have received inadequate responses,” Mclsaac declared. With that, the commission adjourned, giving DND three days to deliver the requested materials. By week’s end, when the commission reconvened, Mclsaac—bolstered by 12 boxes of new material delivered to the commission—was in a more conciliatory mood. While still concerned about missing documents, she said that she was “satisfied that we are in a position to proceed.” But by then, the inquiry had to confront a new controversy: a complaint by Brig.Gen. Ernest Beno that Justice Gilles Letourneau, head of the commission, was guilty of bias.

The motion by Beno, who in 1992 was head of the special service force that included the Somalia-bound Canadian Air-

borne, seeks to have Letourneau removed as head of the inquiry. Filed on April 4, it rests on the contention that on Feb. 6, during conversations at CFB Calgary with high-ranking officers, Letourneau questioned Beno’s truthfulness—thereby showing bias. Beno’s lawyer, Bruce Carr-Harris, told the commission last week that Letourneau should not have been making “derogatory statements about one witness” outside of the hearings. But commission counsel Simon Noel, in his response, suggested that Letourneau had only expressed views that he had already made public during Beno’s first appearance before the inquiry in late January. And, argued Noel, unlike a trial judge, I^etourneau has the responsibility to be assertive and engaged. “The role of the commissioner is to investigate,” Noel said. “He must search for the truth.”

The question of Letourneau’s impartiality will likely be settled sometime this week. Letourneau himself will rule on the motion, along with his co-commissioners, Peter Desbarats, dean of University of

Western Ontario’s journalism school and Justice Robert Rutherford of the Ontario Court of Justice. After that, the commission will continue to hear from a series of military and civilian witnesses on the alteration and reclassification of documents relating to the Somalia scandal.

One of those upcoming witnesses, Col. Geoffrey Haswell, has already been charged by military police with seven counts related to the falsification of documents. Haswell, for his part, maintains that Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jean Boyle, his predecessor Gen. John de Chastelain and former deputy minister of defence Robert Fowler knew of and approved a plan designed to thwart media access-to-information requests by renaming a class of documents and then having them destroyed within 72 hours. Last week, The Globe and Mail reported that Roberto Gonzales, director general of the military’s public affairs branch between 1993-1994, told military police last fall that Boyle, who at the time was associate assistant deputy defence minister in charge of policy and communications, approved the plan. But Gonzales insists that the aim was not to mislead the media, but rather to ensure that only relevant, up-to-date information was distributed.

Still, questions continued to swirl around Boyle’s involvement in the alleged Somalia £ coverup. And last week in Ottawa, opposi| tion parties also took aim at Boyle’s deS fender: Defence Minister David Collenette. 3 Faced with the Reform party’s continuing I demands for the defence minister’s resigg nation, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien reit&lt erated his strong support for Collenette, a longtime political ally. Collenette, in turn, continued to show confidence in his beleaguered chief of the defence staff. But the attacks continued. Reform Leader Preston Manning suggested that Collenette could be abetting a coverup through his continuing support for Boyle, and demanded that the general step aside until cleared of wrongdoing by the inquiry. “Tie defence minister’s handpicked chief of defence staff is up to his eyeballs in the Somalia affair,” declared Manning in the House of Commons.

Adding to the chorus was Bloc Québécois Leader Michel Gauthier, who asked the defence minister to explain why people in his department “were in the habit of destroying and hiding documents.” That prompted a clearly exasperated Collenette to accuse the Bloc of joining Reform in a common front intended to undermine the inquiry and destroy morale in the armed forces. “The Bloc Québécois has joined the inquisition,” barked the defence minister.

But in addition to the outrage of opposition members, the Liberal government must also contend with a rising concern

over the Somalia scandal within its own ranks. Some government MPs fear that with the commission unlikely to report before the middle of next year, the fallout could continue into the next federal election. Said one Liberal MP: “This thing has a life of its own.” Of greatest concern now is Boyle’s continuing status. Collenette has stated that the chief of the defence staff, who will likely testify before the inquiry in midMay, must have his say in front of the commission. But Liberal MP Mary Clancy, for one, says that Boyle has become a liability for the government. “I think his credibility is a big, big problem,” she told Maclean’s.

In fact, many defence experts believe that Boyle’s days are clearly numbered—and they are already speculating about possible replacements. If he were to resign, some are calling for a retired general or admiral— even a reserve officer—to be promoted to his place, one whose leading qualification would be that he is completely unconnected to the Somalia affair. Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, an outspoken critic of the military’s handling of the Somalia affair, suggests retired vice-admiral Charles (Chuck)

Thomas, who resigned in 1991 after a dispute over budget cuts with de Chastelain, then chief of the defence staff. When contacted, the 59-year-old Thomas told Maclean’s that the Somalia scandal was “an outrage,” but added that someone from within the military’s current ranks is required to restore morale. He also cautioned

Some MPs are afraid that the Somalia fallout will continue

against putting too great a responsibility on the shoulders of a reserve officer. “Reservists don’t have the experience to function in that tough Ottawa environment,” warned Thomas.

Others, like Brian MacDonald, an analyst at Toronto-based Strategico, a military consulting firm, are touting 58-year-old Lt.-

Gen. Richard Evraire as a possible replacement for Boyle. Evraire is a highly respected former member of the Royal 22nd Regiment (the Van Doos) who has been stationed in Europe for the last eight years and is currently the commandant of the NATO defence college in Rome. Although he is three years past retirement age, Evraire “is untainted by Somalia and has high personal integrity in the armed forces and within NATO,” MacDonald notes.

Also mentioned as possible choices are Maj.-Gen. Bryan Stephenson, currently commander of land forces central area, and Vice-Admiral Lynn Mason, now the commander of maritime command. But one mark against both Stephenson and Mason is the fact that they have both attended high-level meetings dealing with the Somalia affair and can be connected, however tenuously, to the defence department’s handling of the scandal. For the Canadian military, Somalia is quickly becoming the thing against which all else is measured. Given that, it will also be a factor if, in the case of Boyle, speculation over his possible successor gives way to the necessity for hard choices.

LUKE FISHER in Ottawa