News / Toronto

Canada’s hostage ‘war room’ is more like a leaderless boardroom

The reality of Canada’s war room is not like the movies. Interdepartmental committees of people with good intentions run up against bureaucratic and political inertia.

Eight years ago, Ottawa was overwhelmed by five overseas abductions in five months: Clockwise from top left: aspiring filmmaker Beverly Giesbrecht, reporter Mellissa Fung; diplomats Louis Guay and Robert Fowler, and journalist Amanda Lindhout.

tania_pereira / Star/Canadian Press/Getty

Eight years ago, Ottawa was overwhelmed by five overseas abductions in five months: Clockwise from top left: aspiring filmmaker Beverly Giesbrecht, reporter Mellissa Fung; diplomats Louis Guay and Robert Fowler, and journalist Amanda Lindhout.

The hostage is taken, dragged from a hired car at gunpoint, snatched in a narrow laneway, roused from sleep on a sailboat. The devastated family is consumed by panic, confusion and questions. Lots and lots of questions.

Meanwhile in the capital, an elite government team assembles in a war room that thrums with electronic chatter and purpose. The prime minister is briefed. Men in uniform are mobilized.

This is how it happens in the movies. One tub of popcorn later, the good guys save the day.

This is not the reality.

A screengrab from a video posted to Facebook on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2016 shows Canadian Joshua Boyle and his wife Caitlan Coleman, who were kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2012.

A screengrab from a video posted to Facebook on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2016 shows Canadian Joshua Boyle and his wife Caitlan Coleman, who were kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2012.

Canada’s war room is more like a boardroom — where a leaderless, interdepartmental committee of good people with good intentions meet and deal not only with kidnappers’ demands but also with bureaucratic and political inertia.

Interviews with more than 50 people, including government and security officials, past and present, and former hostages and their relatives, reveal a range of obstacles, including lack of leadership, lack of continuity, unnecessary secrecy and political paralysis.

Problems with Canada’s approach were flagged eight years ago when Stephen Harper was prime minister and Ottawa was overwhelmed by five overseas abductions in five months: freelance journalist Amanda Lindhout in Somalia; CBC reporter Mellissa Fung in Afghanistan; aspiring filmmaker Beverly Giesbrecht in Pakistan; and Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay in Niger, where they were working for the United Nations.

A secret U.S. diplomatic cable dated January 2009, and later released by WikiLeaks, revealed Canada’s bureaucratic angst: Ottawa met each kidnap “on the fly” without any firm policy guidance — and now it wanted U.S. input to help close those gaps, laying out new Canadian rules “especially with regard to policy on ransom payments” but also “for dealing with hostage-takers, the media, the families of victims and interested third parties (i.e. insurance companies and employers).”

John Proctor, who worked on the Canadian effort as a senior intelligence adviser with the Department of National Defence, confirmed that a comprehensive policy was ready to go when Parliament was prorogued in December 2009.

“There was a very serious effort to put together all the pieces — and it died completely,” Proctor, now a vice-president of global cybersecurity for the Ottawa-based firm CGI, told the Star.

Bob Rae, former MP and lawyer, says if changes have been made, he hasn’t seen them.

Bob Rae, who was Liberal Foreign Affairs critic while Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were hostages. Fowler thanks Rae in his book, Season in Hell, for keeping in touch with his wife, Mary, throughout the ordeal.

Bob Rae, who was Liberal Foreign Affairs critic while Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were hostages. Fowler thanks Rae in his book, Season in Hell, for keeping in touch with his wife, Mary, throughout the ordeal.

In opposition, Rae was Liberal Foreign Affairs critic while Fowler and Guay were held hostage. Fowler thanks Rae in his book, Season in Hell, for keeping in touch with his wife, Mary, during their ordeal. His praise of Rae is in stark contrast to how Fowler felt his case was handled by many in the Canadian government, noting that his wife had to meet with then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York to get any real update — or a reason to hope.

“Lying in the hot Sahara sand, having made a proof-of-life video recording on Day 5, I never imagined that it would take 45 days before anyone told Mary that we were alive, or that the person who eventually passed her such happy news would not be a Canadian,” Fowler writes.

Rae, who left politics in 2013, again tried to help a family of a hostage when the Abu Sayyaf Group abducted his university friend, John Ridsdel, in the Philippines along with fellow Canadian Robert Hall. Ridsdel and Hall were held for months before they were executed within seven weeks of each other earlier this year.

“If there’s no person who’s clearly in charge and given responsibility to report to the prime minister on an urgent critical situation, things get lost in the bureaucracy and turf wars get played, and nobody really knows who’s reporting to who and which department,” says Rae.

Only in war zones has Canada had an effective war room.

The room erupted in cheers as three bearded, emaciated, exhausted men trudged along the receiving line of RCMP officers who they were meeting for the first time, but who knew everything about them.

Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler (R), UN special envoy to Niger, and his assistant Louis Guay are pictured after they were released along with two European tourists by Al-Qaeda-linked captors after months as hostages, in Bamako on April 23, 2009.

Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler (R), UN special envoy to Niger, and his assistant Louis Guay are pictured after they were released along with two European tourists by Al-Qaeda-linked captors after months as hostages, in Bamako on April 23, 2009.

“There are these big guys, big strapping RCMP dudes and they’re standing there like this,” says Canada’s Jim Loney, puffing out his chest. “They’ve got their arms crossed, their necks are back. And we’re like, ‘Thank you. Thank you so very much.’ ”

It was March 23, 2006, and Loney’s first day of freedom after 118 days as a hostage of an Iraqi group called The Swords of Righteousness Brigade. When he entered the operations centre in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, he stared at a photo of himself staring back. There were also photos of fellow Canadian Harmeet Singh Sooden, Briton Norman Kemper and American Tom Fox, a web of string connecting their images to Post-it notes and maps.

Loney, Sooden and Kemper were members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, who had travelled to Iraq to document human rights abuses and promote peace. Two weeks earlier, their U.S. colleague Fox had been executed when demands to release Iraqi prisoners had not been met.

The Christian Peacemaker Teams’ release, for Ottawa, was as good as it got. In the decade since, even as Britain, the U.S., Australia and other allies have refined how they work to secure the release of citizens kidnapped abroad — including the creation of dedicated fusion “cells” — Ottawa’s policy has suffered from neglect under Conservative and Liberal governments alike.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, proved a key turning point for Western governments grappling with abductions overseas, sparking a rise in the number of hostage-takings and the political risk.

“What happened after 9/11 was that everybody’s budgetary dollars became so focused on terrorism,” says Gary Noesner, who spent the last 10 years of his career as chief of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit before retiring in 2003. “Everybody wanted a piece of pie. So now you had 20 cooks in the kitchen and nobody knew what anyone was making.”

Kidnapped Christian peace activists from left, Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden, American Tom Fox and Briton Norman Kember are seen in this image aired by Al Jazeera TV on Jan. 28, 2006. Fox would be executed, the other three released.

Kidnapped Christian peace activists from left, Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden, American Tom Fox and Briton Norman Kember are seen in this image aired by Al Jazeera TV on Jan. 28, 2006. Fox would be executed, the other three released.

Canada followed the U.S. lead, pouring money into national security, dramatically increasing the RCMP’s role. Kidnapping investigations were led by the RCMP, working with senior diplomats and various departments, including JTF2, the elite military force and the two spy services, CSIS and CSE. In political-speak, this is known as the “whole of government” approach, which means drawing on all the best resources.

But that has also led to turf battles and political hyper-caution, and it is the families of hostages who get lost in the fray.

During the CPT kidnapping negotiations, there was the position of a parliamentary secretary, who drew authority directly from Prime Minister Paul Martin’s office. “I was the go-to person,” says former MP Dan McTeague, who had that job. “If things went wrong, I was to blame. If things went right, we looked good.”

McTeague said he made an effort to call the families of hostages daily to give whatever update he could, backed by Martin, who also personally called Loney’s family as soon as news broke of the kidnapping.

“My brother Matt was travelling in Machu Picchu and he wasn’t sure if he should come home, and my brother Ed was in Vancouver,” says Jim Loney. “The prime minister . . . called my dad and said, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ And he said, ‘Bring my boys here.’ ”

Canadian Hostages Jim Loney, right, and Harmeet Sooden are seen after their release, in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 24, 2006.

Christian Peacemaker

Canadian Hostages Jim Loney, right, and Harmeet Sooden are seen after their release, in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 24, 2006.

Among the gaps in Canada’s hostage response system, multiple sources told the Star, are a lack of support and expertise in handling the very specific and evolving challenge of overseas kidnapping.

“I don’t think it’s resourced enough,” says Andy Ellis, who retired this year as assistant director of operations at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

“They have a huge responsibility in that department,” he said of foreign affairs, now known as Global Affairs Canada. “Really hard-working people who are asked to do Herculean tasks with next to no resources.”

There is also little continuity.Since Joshua Boyle and his American wife, Caitlan Coleman, were abducted by the Taliban in Afghanistan in October 2012, there have been five directors of the Task Force on International Critical Incidents, the Global Affairs Canada unit responsible for kidnappings. Each transition brings growing pains.

Noesner said governments often operate in a “helter skelter way” and expertise is lost when people are transferred or new governments take over.

“You have to restart each time,” Noesner says. “It’s a terrible recipe; it’s the nature of bureaucracy.”

Ellis, who now works as a consultant and is helping, pro bono, in cases of Canadians held abroad, says governments will always lack the options available to private security companies.

“The private side of things can be more nimble, be quicker to the point. They can offer options and maybe they can take away the risk before it becomes too great,” he said. “The difference is the private sector is results-focused and I would argue, the public sector, is politically focused. There’s always a political element. What will the minister think? Will the minister sign offon this?”

The political fallout of kidnappings can be huge. Consider Jimmy Carter’s failed 1980 attempt to end the Iran hostage crisis and rescue 52 Americans, which cost him the next election.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion.

Sean Kilpatrick

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion.

Worldwide, fewer than 100 private security consultants specialize in international hostage negotiation. They are a tribe unto themselves, contracting their services, directly or indirectly, to companies or relatives of kidnap victims. Some are incredibly skilled. Some are not. All are expensive.

Multiple sources within this community singled out the Canadian passport as a particularly weak shield for those held hostage abroad, because Canada lacks the agility of its peers and has failed to elevate its game. Ottawa rarely works in concert with private security firms — telling the families it is an either-or decision for them.

“Where things generally go wrong for police forces like the RCMP is that their skills are designed domestic for events like when a bank robbery goes wrong and turns into a siege,” said one veteran of the private hostage response world.

“In their own jurisdictions, they are trained to move toward one of two outcomes — convince the villains to give up or keep them talking long enough for direct action by a SWAT team. The problem is that when someone gets kidnapped by a gang in Africa or the Philippines or wherever, you are not going to convince them to give up. And you are not going to get enough intel for a rescue. Neither of these strategies is going to work.”

In the absence of a viable strategy or clear leadership to demand otherwise, government response teams tend to default to bystander status, hoping instead that local authorities will solve the crisis.

But even then, success requires unrelenting government-to-government engagement at the highest levels: engagement that the families of Canadian hostages, Ridsdel and Hall, say was not enough, when their loved ones faced the threat of beheading in the Philippines.

One clue in that case emerged in emails first obtained by Vice News under access-to-information legislation. Under the heading “URGENT,’’ a March 17, 2016, message between two senior Ottawa officials calls for Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion to telephone his newly elected counterpart in the Philippines “literally during his first hour in office” to “underline Canadian seriousness of purpose” about the hostage crisis, which was spiralling toward disaster.

The five-word reply: “Decision was not to pursue.”

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