WikiLeaks: To Maintain Illusion of Independence From U.S., Canada Downplayed Role in Iraq Invasion

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fifty-fourth in the series.

In the wake of 9/11, Americans were introduced to some of the uglier features of their government at war. On the one hand, we were witness to the petty politics of competing bureaucracies—small-minded battles over information that ultimately led to failures of security and bungled missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand, we became subject to the repressive character of secrecy regimes that defend Constitutional violations in the name of preserving the very principles—such as transparency—that bolster a democratic society. But according to new embassy cables published this week by WikiLeaks, the United States isn’t alone. Our neighbors to the north, it seems, have had their own problems with sharing information—amongst themselves and with the public.

During the chaotic period immediately following the American invasion of Iraq, the Canadian government was stuck scratching its chin over what to do with Mamdouh Mustafa, the sole Iraqi diplomat remaining in Ottawa. The Canadians had already kicked a handful of Iraqi diplos out of the country on suspicion of espionage by then, but Mustafa had been allowed to remain, even if kept under close watch.

In a cable dashed off roughly a month after the initial stages of the US invasion, the American embassy in Ottawa reported that the Canadians continued “to monitor closely the activities of…Mustafa, and had no indication that he was destroying Iraqi Government records or property.” The leadership in Ottawa was particularly keen, it would seem, to get inside of the embassy once Mustafa left the country so they could “remove items of an ‘undiplomatic nature’ from the premises of the Iraqi Embassy,” though what those items may have been is left a mystery.

But the bigger problem, beyond confiscating the leftovers of an abandoned embassy, was how to proceed with the diplomat himself. The Baath regime of Saddam Hussein had collapsed two days earlier, and according to the Canadian Foreign Affairs Desk Officer for Iraq, Chris Hull,

Mustafa…has given no indication of his future plans. Hull saw no basis for him to be granted refugee status, but said that if Mustafa makes such a claim he could remain in Canada while his case is being reviewed. The GoC could also decide to declare him persona non grata. The RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] is providing security for the Iraqi Embassy and is escorting Mustafa due to concerns about potential demonstrators.

Despite Canada’s official refusal to aid the American toppling of Saddam (which may have masked Canadian participation in the invasion, as new Cablegate documents suggest), the two governments worked closely together on the Mustafa situation.

The GoC has been very helpful to us…and we have concurred with their reasons for not expelling him from Canada. The GoC is now taking a wait-and-see approach on how to deal with him. The Foreign Affairs spokesperson has said it would be up to the new Iraqi government to decide whether to withdraw current diplomats.

By the following month, however, waiting around for a new government to magically appear in Baghdad seemed a distinctly less wise proposition than before. Whether at the behest of Ottawa or by his own volition, Mustafa returned to Iraq, as a second cable—written the following month—makes clear.

Thing is, the Foreign Ministry didn’t bother to let their associates in Canadian intelligence know. As the cable notes, while “the GoC had taken a decision to facilitate the return to Baghdad of Iraqi Charge d’Affaires…sources at post advise that CSIS (Canadian intelligence) was unaware of the…decision.” Not only did the ministry apparently want to keep the news hidden from their interagency partners, but they were also looking to cook the books to obscure the nature of Mustafa’s repatriation to Iraq. The government’s Middle East Division Deputy Director Graeme McIntyre requested that the United States smuggle Mustafa’s name onto “the worldwide list of former regime officials posted abroad whose departure USG previously had encouraged to different host governments,” a move Ottawa would find helpful in greasing the wheels of Mustafa’s exit from Canada.

The reason for this bit of bureaucratic deception, it would seem, had less to do with national security and everything to do with controlling the possibility for domestic political damage to the ruling Liberal Party, which was already falling apart at the seams.

McIntyre said the GoC is particularly sensitive to the possibility of negative press coverage about Mustafa’s departure (and probably, the likelihood that left-leaning opposition MPs will attack the government decision as a “rights” violation etc.).

That way, “if Mustafa was accredited to Canada as a full charge, then it would appear” as if Canadian-American machinations had nothing to do with the diplomat’s return, because he would fall “into the category of ‘head of mission’ and is thus covered by the instruction from the Iraqi [foreign minister].”

The United States obliged, and with good reason: Washington owed Canada a pretty big favor. Despite then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s adamant public refusal to support the American adventure in Iraq, another WikiLeaked document clearly shows the behind-the-scenes reality to be quite different. As my friend Matthew Bondy, a conservative political columnist in Canada, has written, Chretien’s party “blew their nationalist trumpet with one hand and crossed their fingers with the other,” offering to “discreetly” assist coalition forces as they prepared to overrun Iraq even as the Liberals celebrated their foreign policy independence from Washington.

One bad turn, after all, deserves another.