Defence minister Sajjan under fire for Operation Medusa

There’s only one person who can save Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s reputation with the soldiers now.

And perhaps his job too.

It’s not Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Ironically, the one person who can rescue Sajjan is Canada’s Chief of Defence, Gen. Jonathan Vance, who works directly for the minister.

Talk about awkward. Uncomfortable.

But the whole sordid tale is as awkward and uncomfortable as political scandals can get. Not because Sajjan, a reservist intelligence officer, may have embellished his role in 2009’s Operation Medusa in Afghanistan, but because of the Canadians who died in that operation against the Taliban.

Four in the first day: Pte. William Jonathan James Cushley, 21, Warrant Officer Frank Robert Mellish, 38, Warrant Officer Richard Francis Nolan, 39, and Sgt. Shane Stachnik, 30.

The controversy stems from Sajjan’s remarks in India in which he talked about being the “architect” of Operation Medusa which may have been brushed off as a minor improvement on a war story if not for a 2015 interview in which he not only takes credit for this role but quotes Vance as being the one who actually said it.

“If I could quote him, he said I was the architect of Operation Medusa, one of the biggest operations since the Korean war that Canada has led,” Sajjan said in 2015 of Vance while running as a Liberal candidate.

I have reached out Sajjan and Vance but neither so far has responded. Vance, who in a news conference Friday would not address it, is in a tough spot.

His boss’ future is in his hands.

Meanwhile, fellow military people, including veteran MP and Conservative Party leadership hopeful Erin O’Toole, are calling on Sajjan, the MP for Vancouver South, to step down.

“Minister Sajjan, your planning of Operation Overlord & the D-Day landings was inspiring. #SajjanBattles,” he tweeted.

Sajjan has tried to clarify: “Every military operation our Forces undertook in Afghanistan, including Operation Medusa, relied on the courage and dedication of many individuals across the Canadian Forces. My comments were in no way intended to diminish the role that my fellow soldiers and my superiors played in Operation Medusa.”

He said he “regrets” not making it clear “Medusa was successful because of leadership of (Brigadier) Gen. (David) Fraser and the extraordinary team with whom I had the honour of serving.”

When I interviewed Fraser in 2006, he told me it was “Canadians who led this mission” and did not single out any one person including himself as the commander.

A senior Canadian officer who was at Medusa when it launched Sept. 3, 2006, told me Sajjan provided key intelligence but was merely one of hundreds involved.

“This was a multi country operation through NATO,” he said. “There were many layers to it.”

That said, a letter from commanding officer Gen. Fraser provided by Sajjan does say the major “was the best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre” which “undoubtedly saved a multitude of coalition lives” and “his analysis was so compelling that it drove a number of large scale theatre-resourced efforts, including Operation Medusa.”

It’s high praise but does not say Sajjan was the architect.

Trudeau may want to save Sajjan politically but when it comes to military men and women and taking credit for others efforts and sacrifice, it’s not going to be enough from a civilian.

But Vance saying he did in fact call Sajjan the architect, or some explanation amounting to something similar, would carry weight with the troops who don’t appreciate stolen valour.

The key now is what Vance may have said or written in the past or what he will say now.

It’s going to be an interesting session in the House of Commons Monday. Whatever happens politically, in the names of the men and women who died in Afghanistan, before Sajjan can continue as a minister there must be a transparent, accurate airing of exactly what he did and didn’t do there.

Either way, he must apologize. It’s a big hurdle for Sajjan to clear but he won’t be in a position to do anything if Vance doesn’t step up and vouch for what Sajjan said in 2015.

Ironically the defence minister’s future is the hands of the very officer who answers to him.

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