He lied. He has lost the trust of Canadians. He must resign. These have been the statements offered by the federal NDP and Conservative parties in response to a speech made by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to an audience in India in early April. Conservative defence critic James Bezan even went as far as to table a motion in the House of Commons demanding Sajjan’s resignation on May 8th — it was defeated by the Liberal majority.
The whole scandal is over a claim Sajjan made during his speech, that he was “the architect” of Operation MEDUSA, a major Canadian-led military offensive near Kandahar Afghanistan in 2006. The offensive was designed to be a multinational operation to push the Taliban and other insurgent forces out of the area and establish International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) control resulting in the death or capture of an estimated 1,500 combatants. Minister Sajjan was not however, “the architect” of the operation and it is this turn of phrase that the opposition has latched onto.
So, what did Sajjan actually do? Harjit Sajjan was an intelligence officer in Afghanistan in 2006, with considerable experience as an undercover police officer with the Vancouver Police narcotics division. He brought experience, with great effect, to his intelligence gathering role for the military. According to a 2006 reference letter, obtained by the National Observer, and written by Brigadier General David Fraser, Harjit Sajjan’s contributions were “nothing short of remarkable.” Fraser called Sajjan “the best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre.” Fraser continued to say Sajjan “personally fused broad sources of information into an extremely coherent picture upon which most of the formations major operations were based.” Most important to the matter at hand, Fraser stated explicitly that “his analysis was so compelling that it drove a number of large scale theater-resourced efforts, including OPERATION MEDUSA.” So while Sajjan’s claim that he was “the architect” is incorrect, the scandal is, as Thomas Walkom, writing for the Toronto Star, called it, “grammatical” in nature. What Sajjan should have said was that he was an architect not the architect. Even if he played no role in the planning of the operation, the intelligence he collected and assessed laid the groundwork upon which those plans were built and would in my opinion make claims to be “an architect” valid. Minister Sajjan has since apologized repeatedly for his poor choice of words but the opposition does not wish to let the issue go.
In Canadian federal politics, the non-governing parties hold very little actual power beyond their duty to hold the government to account through events like question period and interactions with the media. The high profile of this scandal has allowed those parties to raise a number of issues related to defence which would not normally receive much media attention; issues like the Liberal retreat from holding an inquiry into Afghan prisoner transfers, which Minister Sajjan may have been indirectly involved in through his capacity as an intelligence officer. Or questions about a “capability gap” facing the Canadian Air Force which justified the withdrawal of CF-18s from Iraq and the decision to purchase additional F-18s. Lastly, Harjit Sajjan is a high profile Liberal MP, holds an impressive resume, is recognizable to Canadians, and sits in Cabinet. If the opposition was able to force Minister Sajjan, for whatever reason, to resign it would be a major blow to the Trudeau administration, and help themselves in the next federal election.
The scandal is a non-issue, but the connected problems that the opposition are trying to raise should be worth further consideration, especially problems surrounding prisoner transfers during the Harper administration. Unfortunately, the Conservatives cannot press too openly on the prisoner transfer issue as it happened under their watch and may damage their own party. Instead they are choosing to engage in an act of political theatre, dancing around issues that matter in order to attack the current government over a few poorly chosen words.