DND leak investigation started under Tories, expanded under Liberals
Expert says where Liberals and secrets are concerned it's 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss'
The RCMP has been conducting a secret, wide-ranging investigation for many months into a series of leaks involving classified cabinet papers, decisions and other sensitive information — a high-stakes probe that's not only targeted the country's second-highest military commander, but additional unnamed suspects, CBC News has learned.
Multiple sources tell CBC News the hunt for informants began under the former Conservative government, but gained a renewed intensity in November 2015 under the newly elected Liberals following at least three sensitive breaches that were splashed across the media.
Two of the leaks referenced cabinet documents or decisions concerning military shipbuilding, said the sources, who were granted anonymity by CBC News because of the sensitivity of the case.
The disclosures revealed underfunding and other problems with the government's multibillion-dollar national shipbuilding strategy and "infuriated" and embarrassed not only the government, but proponents of the strategy within the bureaucracy.
The RCMP have questioned suspects in both Ottawa and on the West Coast, the sources said.
The leaks provide a bit of a peek behind the curtain to the back-room war that's been raging over the shipbuilding strategy as the military grows more impatient waiting for the delivery of promised warships.
Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, Canada's vice-chief of defence staff, was suspended from his duties but not relieved of command two months ago. He apparently came to the attention of the Mounties after investigators examined email traffic that referenced him.
His lawyer, Marie Henein, who also represented former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi during his sex assault trial, issued a statement on Feb. 23 saying it would be a "profound disservice" if Norman was to be the casualty of "bureaucratic crossfire."
His legal issues began on Jan. 9, when he was questioned at length by investigators in his home. He was suspended by the military four days later and news of the extraordinary step was leaked to the media.
Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance appointed the head of the navy as the acting vice-chief. But in a sign there will be no swift resolution for Norman, Vance recently tweeted that he plans to shuffle another flag officer into the job on a temporary basis, beginning at the end of May.
Norman's electronics, including home computer and tablet, were seized under a search warrant that has been sealed for national security purposes.
Both National Defence and the Liberal government, whose members campaigned in 2015 as the antidote to the secrecy of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, have steadfastly refused to explain why Norman has been removed and have not even publicly acknowledged an investigation is underway.
In an extraordinary move a few weeks ago, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson refused to answer a Senate committee's question about the case.
Shipbuilding and Syrian leaks
The most politically sensitive and damaging of the November 2015 leaks led to stories about the Liberal government's temporary halt to the planned lease of a converted cargo ship for the navy, a program known as Project Resolve. Both CBC News and The Canadian Press reported that story and the CBC's sources say the government believed it made them look foolish.
It was followed days later by another CBC News story that quoted from briefing material prepared for newly minted Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Public Works Minister Judy Foote that warned shipbuilding program costs were out of control and the government needed a four-point plan to address the problem.
The third disclosure to raise the hackles of the government that month involved details about the military's plan to house Syrian refugees and how much it was going to cost. Both Postmedia and The Canadian Press obtained separate leaks on that file.
The RCMP probe, which sources say is being carried out by the sensitive investigations unit, is focused almost exclusively on disclosures of so-called classified information to the media and the defence industry, and apparently does not involve suspected corruption.
Computers at National Defence were monitored remotely in order to track incoming and outgoing contacts some in the department were having with outsiders, the sources said.
The RCMP did not answer requests for comment.
The secrecy reflex
Anger and embarrassment about the leaks appears to have more to do with politics and bureaucratic ineptness than national security, said one expert.
"There are pressures to keep things closed that come both from the civil service and the politicians," said Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia defence policy expert who has written a number of studies critical of Canada's military procurement.
There were "procurements that have actually failed because of incompetence within the bureaucracies," he said, referring to examples such as navy supply ships and logistics trucks.
"So in that kind of situation, civil servants will want to cover up their mistakes or potential mistakes by casting this veil of secrecy over top of them. At the same time, responsibility for those mistakes actually rests with the political masters."
There is a trend towards the over-classification of information, he said.
Right now, it's a little bit of meet the new boss, same as the old boss.- Mike Larsen, co-author of Brokering Access: Power, Politics, and Freedom of Information Process in Canada
One example he cites in shipbuilding is the Liberal government's refusal to release cost estimates for the multibillion-dollar frigate replacement program.
The public works minister said Canadians won't know the price tag of the warships until the government signs the contract in 2019. The same goes for the purchase of 18 Boeing Super Hornet jet fighters to help the air force meet its obligations while the government shops for a permanent replacement for the aging fleet of CF-18s.
Those figures are now treated as confidential and releasing them could be considered a violation of cabinet secrecy.
Byers says that's a disservice to the public.
Liberals and secrecy
Another expert says what's more alarming is the Liberals have become more clandestine than the Conservatives in some key areas — contrary to what they promised on the campaign trail.
"Right now, it's a little bit of meet the new boss, same as the old boss," said Mike Larsen, a criminology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C., and co-author of Brokering Access: Power, Politics, and Freedom of Information Process in Canada.
Last fall, the Liberals introduced an unprecedented gag order to prevent 235 Canadian military personnel and federal workers from ever talking about the fighter jet replacement program.
They have also refused to roll back changes instituted under the Conservatives that affect how access to information legislation deals with cabinet secrets. The effect of the tweaking of federal Treasury Board regulations in 2013 is that more documents requested by the public can be deemed "cabinet confidence."
"If we look back in 10 years' time we'll have a better sense of this, but it wouldn't surprise to see that secrecy deepened and intensified and became more entrenched and more of a matter of policy under the Liberal regime," said Larsen. "Precisely because they're dealing with issues around transparency at a time when they're also expanding the entire security apparatus."
Exercising judgment with secrets
Former RCMP commissioner Bill Elliott would not comment on the current investigation, but in an interview rejected the wide-ranging assertion that information is routinely withheld to avoid government embarrassment.
He said during his time as commissioner from 2007 to 2011, he witnessed times when it would have been politically expedient to release something, but it didn't happen because there are sound public policy reasons why government officials are legally and ethically bound to respect the confidentiality of information.
But there are limits, he says, and officials need to exercise judgment and discretion when deciding whether there's a greater public interest served by releasing information.
"You have to have a good reason to keep information secret," he said. "And the reason for keeping information secret isn't because it's embarrassing information — or even if it is in a so-called secret document that is marked secret.
"You have to look beyond the secret label to the actual contents of the document and make a decision on whether or not that information can and should be released."