from Friday's Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Mar. 23, 2007 7:49AM EDT Last updated on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2009 10:24PM EDT

A man in the RCMP's witness protection program committed homicide, but we can't tell you anything about that homicide -- not even who he killed. We can't reveal the details because they might reveal his true identity, and the witness-protection law provides permanent confidentiality to the informants who enter it. The exceptions are extremely limited; unfortunately, committing homicide is not among them. Not even the family members hurt by his crime are permitted to learn the full story. Even after the man is dead, his identity will be protected.

What we know is chilling -- not only the homicide, but his dangerous unreliability as an informant. But what should the public make of what we don't know? How often does the RCMP make such egregious mistakes when choosing informants and agents? We have no idea, and neither does anyone else outside the RCMP. No one is watching because no one is allowed to look. The RCMP commissioner is responsible for producing an annual report on witness protection, but nothing in that report would reveal the type of problems reported on by Greg McArthur and Gary Dimmock in today's Globe and Mail and Ottawa Citizen.

The law that protects the identity of informants in the witness protection program also shields the RCMP from public scrutiny about the integrity of its program. Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day should consider whether permanent confidentiality is necessary and appropriate, and whether a civilian review mechanism could help ensure that the RCMP does a good job of managing the witness program.

The RCMP argues that the witness program is a key part of this country's fight against organized crime. If informants who committed crimes or lied to police had their identity revealed, that might compromise other informants who dealt with them along the way. And the promise of permanent protection is part of what appeals to informants.

But confidentiality should not always trump legitimate public interests, such as maintaining transparency in policing and in the courts. And perhaps police informants would be less likely to abuse the system if they were told upfront that they could lose their protection if they committed major crimes.

The RCMP made some disturbing mistakes with at least one informant and agent in its witness protection program. That is what we know. What we don't know may be worse yet; but federal law in effect shields Canada's national police force from scrutiny for this aspect of its work. Trust us, Canadians are told. The story of the informant who committed homicide and maintained his confidentiality shows why trust is not enough.