OTTAWA - Federal parties are close to a deal that would avert a parliamentary showdown — and possible election — over sensitive Afghan detainee documents.

The government and opposition parties have agreed to let a small special committee — made up of MPs from each party, all sworn to secrecy — scrutinize all relevant, uncensored documents.

And they're close to agreement on the key question of how to resolve disputes over what information can be safely released to the public — without jeopardizing national security.

Details have not yet been hammered out but sources said Wednesday that all parties are now willing to let a neutral judge or panel of experts vet which documents will be disclosed.

New Democrat negotiators had wanted MPs on the special committee to make that determination for themselves.

But sources say they got no backing for that position from either the Liberals or Bloc Quebecois, much less the governing Conservatives. As a result, they say the NDP now appears willing to go along with the consensus of the other parties.

On Tuesday, NDP negotiators had been adamant on the right of MPs alone to decide which documents to release. And they had seemed relatively pessimistic about the chances of reaching a deal by Friday, the deadline set by Commons Speaker Peter Milliken.

But New Democrat MP Joe Comartin struck a more conciliatory tone Wednesday after an hour-long negotiating session.

"We had been feeling each other out over the last several meetings. I know us going in I think felt some unease with that, that we hadn't got further along," he told reporters.

"And what happened today was that we got into very specific details. No resolution yet on any of them but as we began listening to each other . . . I think there was a greater level of confidence that we were coming closer together."

Comartin said the NDP remains firm that "parliamentarians are in control of the process" of scrutinizing and disclosing documents. But he added: "If we have to build in other steps, we're satisfied with that."

He confirmed options under consideration for vetting documents include a neutral judge, a panel of experts or some other independent arbiter.

As well, the parties are still considering the idea of releasing summaries of some particularly sensitive documents, without disclosing details that could put national security at risk.

Earlier this week, NDP negotiators had raised concerns that the government was looking for a veto over which documents would be released. But Comartin said the government seemed "much more open" during Wednesday's talks.

"So some of the concerns we had yesterday I think they helped allay today."

Bloc House leader Pierre Paquette echoed Comartin's optimism, saying he found the government "very open" to compromise.

Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale called Wednesday's talks "a good, frank, pointed conversation" in which no one issued any ultimatums or drew any lines in the sand.

"I think some very constructive, practical ideas were discussed today."

He said he was "encouraged" but cautioned that negotiations could still "founder."

Opposition parties have been demanding access to the Afghan detainee documents since early December. The documents relate to allegations that prisoners were routinely tortured by Afghan authorities after being turned over by Canadian soldiers.

In a historic ruling two weeks ago, Milliken agreed that parliamentarians have an absolute right to scrutinize all the documents.

He originally gave the parties until last Tuesday to find a formula for making the material accessible without risking national security. At the request of all parties, he has extended the deadline to Friday.

If the parties are unable to reach an agreement by Friday afternoon, that would pave the way for a contempt of Parliament motion against the governnment, which could trigger an election.

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