For most of his three-plus years in Parliament, Han Dong has been one of the dozens of mostly anonymous backbench MPs. Given what’s happened over the last few weeks, the representative for Don Valley North probably would have preferred it remain that way. But now, after he was accused in a Global News story of betraying Canada (and two of its captive citizens) to the Chinese government — an allegation Dong has denied — his name will not soon be forgotten. As Evan Scrimshaw wrote on his Substack, “Either this story is true and the RCMP have protected a traitor, or Global just defamed an innocent man by trusting bad intelligence. May we not have the law’s delay.”
There are some obvious parallels here to examples in our not-so-distant past of why intelligence and evidence aren’t synonymous. We would all do well to remember lessons from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, where inaccurate military intelligence was weaponized by the United States government to justify an operation that killed upwards of 200,000 Iraqi civilians, along with thousands of soldiers on both sides. The Government of Canada at the time resisted pressure to participate in that misadventure, to its everlasting credit.
But many members of the media, including the New York Times, were far more trusting of that information and its implications than they should have been. "In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged,” the Times said in a 2004 mea culpa. “Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.”
Here in Canada, we have the Maher Arar case to remind us of why trusting anonymous intelligence sources can be a dangerous road to travel. He was an innocent Canadian citizen who was portrayed, both by sources and journalists, as a potential terrorist — and treated (and tortured) accordingly by the United States. Justice Dennis O’Connor was tasked with conducting one of two separate inquiries into Arar’s treatment, and he was unsparing in his criticism of Canada’s security agencies and their behaviour.
But as Andrew Mitrovica wrote in a piece for The Walrus in 2006, the media also played a role in Arar’s mistreatment. “O’Connor also concluded that a smear campaign had been orchestrated against Arar by Canadian officials, aided by members of the media. Leaks to the press spanned two years and constituted a campaign with the intent, O’Connor stated, not only to tar Arar’s name and reputation but also to keep him imprisoned. When that ultimately failed, the goal was to thwart a public inquiry.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. The difference now is that it seems Canadian officials are leaking information in order to force an inquiry, not prevent one. And for better or worse, that inquiry — which I suggested was necessary in a column earlier this month — now feels inevitable. When that inquiry happens, it should take stock of the role played by anonymous intelligence sources and the journalists who carried their words forward.
As Chantal Hebert said on the most recent edition of The Bridge with Peter Mansbridge, “This notion that if you see two sources with a security background that have said this and that, well, that’s not Moses coming down from the mountain. And I think that context has been missing over the past few weeks.”
Former CSIS director Ward Elcock seems to share that view. “This idea that there’s a whistleblower out there who’s providing this information … there is no whistleblower,” he told CBC News. “This is an individual who’s done enormous damage and ought to be prosecuted.”
That doesn’t mean Global should be forced to reveal its sources, since that would be a clear breach of trust and journalistic ethics. Anonymous sources can (and sometimes should) play a role in difficult stories like this. But the context Hebert mentioned needs to be kept in mind as we go forward, in as much as that’s even possible any more.
Han Dong may well be guilty of everything that's been said and written about him recently. But what if he isn't? That's a question our experience with the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the rendition and torture of Maher Arar should have us asking.
That context should probably include the Globe and Mail’s decision not to report on Dong’s alleged conversation with a Chinese official “because it was unable to obtain transcripts or a tape recording to authenticate what actually transpired.” That doesn’t mean the conversation didn’t happen. But guilty until proven innocent is a dangerous approach to the administration of justice, whether that’s in the court of law or the court of public opinion.
Regardless of the verdict(s) rendered on Dong and his actions, Canadians will also have to reckon with the fallout. Trust in any number of important institutions has been damaged, from our democracy and its elections to the security forces that protect our country and the media that covers it. To repair it, we need to expose all of those institutions to the brightest light they can tolerate — and then some. Yes, that will probably reveal some weaknesses we’d rather not see, much less have others look at. But democracy demands that we set a higher standard than the one we’ve been seeing of late.
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