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Ottawa's policy on wounded troops skews Afghan war coverage: NDP

OTTAWA — National Defence has a ``Don’t ask, won’t tell’’ policy on Canadian soldiers wounded in Kandahar.<br />

OTTAWA — National Defence has a ``Don’t ask, won’t tell’’ policy on Canadian soldiers wounded in Kandahar.


The department will release statistics on how many are injured, but
only if the department is specifically asked about the information, say
federal documents.


The army stopped reporting battlefield injuries to journalists on the
ground late last year as part of a stepped up campaign to confuse the
Taliban on what kind of damage it inflicted on the battle group.


As a result, the public didn’t hear about the injuries suffered by two
soldiers until after they had died in hospital from their wounds
earlier this year.


New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris said the policy of waiting to
be asked about the wounded flies in the face of the federal
government’s pledge of accountability and gives the public a skewed
view of the war.


``It’s a very sad thing when you find out at the end of the year that
our soldiers are essentially reduced to statistics on an ask-only
basis,’’ Harris said. ``This is not accountability. When harm is being
done to our troops, that’s important to know.’’


The federal government says it’s responded to the ``public’s right to
know,’’ while maintaining operational security, by releasing the
figures on an annual basis.


But a series of emails between policy officials and public affairs
staff at National Defence last spring, obtained by The Canadian Press
under access to information laws, show that even when compiled annually
and stripped of specific incident details, the government is reluctant
to disclose the numbers.


``This information will be used reactively for media queries and
statistics will be provided via e-mail to interested reporters,’’ wrote
Christopher Williams, a ministerial liaison in the department’s public
affairs branch on March 24, 2010.


He was answering a question from the Defence Department’s Parliamentary
liaison after the issue of secrecy and the reporting of wounded was
raised in the House of Commons last spring. That debate was spawned
after a Canadian soldier, Cpl. Darren Fitzpatrick, died in an Edmonton
trauma centre from injuries sustained in a roadside bomb blast.


The fact he was injured went unreported by the military at the time.
The same thing happened in death of Cpl. Brian Pinksen, who succumbed
to his wounds at the U.S. Army medical centre in Landstuhl, where
severely wounded Canadian troops are flown for treatment.


The policy even makes some in uniform uncomfortable. Soldiers who spoke
off the record said the growing number of wounded, traumatized or
moderately injured — over 1,400 according to the last update — is a big
story that is being underplayed.


Harris said there are ways National Defence can safeguard information
without deliberately keeping Canadians in the dark. He’d be prepared to
accept a news blackout on casualties on specific incidents, but urged
the military to release numbers once a month, so the public can get a
sense as to how bad the fighting has been — or how the situation has
improved.


``That way we’re kept informed as to what the cost of the war is in
casualties,’’ he said. ``That seems to me to be something we’re
entitled to know.’’


But Capt. Christian Courtemanche, a spokesman for the military’s
Strategic Joint Staff, the nerve centre of decision-making, said the
Forces stands by its decision.


``The policy is to basically limit the information available,’’ he said.


The Defence Department relented last week on another set of statistics
and released information on the number of Afghans captured by Canadian
troops in the first seven years of the war. Those numbers have been at
the centre of a legal and political battle over he handling of
detainees.


Defence Minister Peter MacKay promised to also release those numbers on an annual basis.

 
 
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