Electronic records detailing the planned overhaul of Canadian naval intelligence — created when admitted Russian spy Jeffrey Delisle was at the height of his treachery — were deleted from a National Defence database.
Two PowerPoint slide presentations, aimed at explaining the overhaul to intelligence analysts on both the east and west coasts, were reported destroyed when copies were requested earlier this year by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
Military officials described the deletions as a clerical error.
But when the news agency asked why both the electronic and paper copies had been expunged, and whether that violated access-to-information law, the navy eventually reversed itself and claimed some copies of the presentations had survived in email accounts of officers serving overseas.
The confusion over the handling of the records alarms defence and intelligence experts.
"We should be asking questions, absolutely," said retired colonel and military law expert Michel Drapeau.
"I mean, naval intelligence goes to the security of the country, security of people, of our Armed Forces. They are issues of national interest."
Questions about the deletion of the PowerPoint presentations come at time when the military's entire handling of sensitive data is under scrutiny.
Last week, court records released in the Delisle case showed the naval officer retained top secret access even though his security clearance had lapsed and that prior screenings had failed to pick up red flags in his personal life.
Delisle had been working at HMCS Trinity, a top secret intelligence centre in Halifax, when he was arrested last January for passing highly classified information over to Russia over a five year period. He pleaded guilty in October.
Deletion raises concerns, say experts
The deletion of the electronic briefings on changes to naval intelligence adds to concerns raised by the Delisle case.
"You would want all intelligence documents and briefings to be handled carefully," said Wesley Wark, an intelligence expert at the University of Toronto.
"It's not just handling, but archiving and preservation of sensitive documents. It goes to the heart of what an intelligence system does. An intelligence system doesn't deal with just current information. It deals with memory and (institutional) capacity."
Delisle would most certainly have had access to the briefings — which, among other things, compare Canada's naval intelligence capability with its allies, lays out the division of responsibilities under the new system, as well as the number, disposition and function of staff within the beefed-up branch.
Wark said the navy's actions become even more serious in light of the spy case. While he's prepared to accept it may have been a mistake, the absence of those records from the database might have significance in assessing Delisle's actions.
"You have a security breach of significant consequence on your hands, you want to be able to discover just what a person conducting a security breach might have had access to in order to be able to assess the damage, and that's a tricky business, but it's absolutely crucial," he said.
The navy has given several contradictory explanations as to why staff initially destroyed the records and whether they had authority to do so.
Exceptions made for draft records
At first, officials said informally it was allowed because the documents were not signed and therefore not considered "official" — something Drapeau dismissed as a "silly" explanation.
"You have to ask what was the compelling reason for you to destroy — whether it was authorized or not — these documents which would very clearly have an historic value," he said.
Federal law, under the Library and Archives Act, requires departments to hold on to such briefing material because of its historical value and mandates officials to seek permission from the chief archivist if the materials are to be destroyed. Exceptions are made for draft records that do not leave the custody of the person who wrote it.
Similarly, the federal Treasury Board has a policy that requires briefing materials to be maintained. The Access to Information and Privacy Act requires documents to be retained, as well.
When The Canadian Press started asking questions last March, an internal National Defence email trail shows the navy's information manager justified the destruction by saying "they were draft documents never communicated beyond the author."
In fact, the presentations were given to the Acoustic Data Analysis Centre at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, B.C. and HMCS Trinity, the all-source fusion intelligence centre in Halifax where Delisle was caught spying.
The March 13, 2012 email also said the material in the briefing was pulled from a "master document that was approved and presented to (Commander Royal Canadian Navy)."
Document eventually recovered
Asked about the contradiction last week, the navy acknowledged the explanation was wrong.
"The briefing deck provided to Trinity, drafted by multiple authors, was written to facilitate staff level discussion, which provided input to a Commander Royal Canadian Navy decision brief," Lt.-Cmdr. Hubert Genest said in an email statement.
"As a result of a misunderstanding of the Treasury Board policy & Library and Archives Canada rules by a member of Naval Staff Headquarters, the document was removed from the document management system, but when the error was discovered, the document was recovered and put back on the system."
Extensively censored copies of the presentations, and the overall Naval Intelligence Roadmap, were released to The Canadian Press on Nov. 19.
Had the navy not restored the briefings, Drapeau said it would have broken both the archives law as well as Treasury Board policy. And had it not eventually released them, the navy could have been accused of obstruction under the Access to Information Act.
Wark said the contents of the briefings would have been of particular interest to the Russians because, while they didn't expose potential sources, they did provide an organizational framework and insight into how Canada was beefing up its intelligence apparatus.
The government has refused to discuss what sort of information Delisle siphoned off.
Previously released court documents show the Harper government is still trying to assess how badly Delisle compromised the country's intelligence apparatus. But the country's international electronic eavesdropping service, the Communications Security Establishment, has acknowledged the damage was high.