An allegation that Canada's second-highest ranked military commander leaked classified technical information related to the country's shipbuilding program is being investigated by the RCMP, CBC News has confirmed.
Mystery still shrouds the sudden removal of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, but sources say the Mounties became involved after it was determined an investigation of the accusations by military police would constitute a conflict of interest.
As the vice-chief of defence staff, Norman has been responsible for the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, which includes military police.
The RCMP are conducting a full-fledged investigation, the sources told CBC News.
Norman, who was pegged as a possible successor to Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, was relieved of his duties on Monday. The move was characterized as "temporary" by Vance's office, which has refused to answer questions about the circumstances.
The Globe and Mail reported Monday that Norman's removal was related to the possible leak of classified information.
Sources tell CBC News that the classified information involved technical information about the navy's shipbuilding requirements and expectations.
Defence sources, speaking to CBC News on the condition of anonymity, say the allegation predates Norman's appointment as vice-chief last summer and likely extends back to his time as commander of the navy.
None of the sources were able to say how serious the breach might have been, but insisted that neither the media nor a foreign power received the information.
It has been suggested inside National Defence that the alleged leak involved the defence industry, which has been engaged in cutthroat competition over the planned multibillion-dollar frigate replacement program.
While in charge of the navy, Norman was intimately involved over several years in the development of requirements for the new warships. Those requirements are partly developed using intelligence and threat assessments of the capabilities of potential enemies, now and into the future.
Before a request for proposals goes out to potential contractors, most of the military's classified annexes are removed.
Defence sources say a leak of data would likely have involved portions of those classified addenda.
Ken Hansen, a retired navy planner and defence analyst, said it would be a serious breach if that kind of data made its way into the defence industry.
"A competitor that saw the classified data would have a really good insight into what the Canadian government and what the navy itself thinks is most needed in going forward for future warships," he said.
"If this breach took place, it is a very serious compromise of intelligence information that should not be shared with unqualified people, and it could be an international incident depending on what the source of that intelligence was."
Bidders were recently asked to submit proposed warship designs to the federal government's go-to shipyard, Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax.
During his tenure as navy commander, Norman was also at the forefront of the decision by the former Conservative government to sole-source the lease of a navy replenishment ship from Federal Fleet Services Inc., which runs the Davie Shipyard in Levi, Que.
Probe began under Tories
The investigation into the alleged leak has been underway for some time and pre-dates the current Liberal government, according to one well-placed source.
Asked for comment, the RCMP said it "does not generally confirm or deny who or who may not be subject of an investigation."
"This is done to protect the integrity of an investigation, the evidence obtained and the privacy of those involved," Sgt. Julie Gagnon said in an email.
Military police said Monday they have not conducted a probe into Norman's activities, nor were they co-operating with an outside law enforcement agency, which has been the practice in previous national security cases.
Although the RCMP are apparently not bound by law to inform the military that one of their own was under investigation, the Mounties have served notice as courtesy in the past.
Additionally, whenever National Defence — or other federal departments — suspect a leak, an internal review is carried out by the department's security officer. There is no indication whether that took place in this instance.
Dave Perry, an analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the stakes are high for Canada, particularly among its allies that share information with the federal government.
He said they'll need to be reassured, but cautioned the investigation needs to take its course.
"I think our allies will be asking us what's going on and basically they'll want to see what happens with the actual investigation that's underway," he said.
Late Tuesday, Vance, who is overseas in military meetings, attempted to address the growing controversy.
"I understand there is a great deal of speculation surrounding the circumstances that led to my decision with regards to Vice-Admiral Mark Norman," he said in a statement. "For privacy considerations I am unable to provide further information."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the controversy on Tuesday during his town hall in the Maritimes. He refused to discuss specifics, but said he backed the military's decision to suspend Norman.
"The chief of defence staff took a decision and this government supports Gen. Vance in the decision that he took, and I have nothing further to say on this at this time," Trudeau said.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was similarly reticent.
"I really can't make a comment at all," Goodale told CBC's Power & Politics.
On Monday, Norman, who was appointed to the post of vice-chief of defence staff last summer, was suspended but not stripped of his command.
National Defence remains silent
There has been no official explanation from National Defence for the unprecedented move.
No military commander in recent memory, at such a senior a level, has been told to relinquish his duties, according to several defence experts.
Officials in the chief of defence staff's office put out a statement characterizing Norman's removal as "temporary" and that his successor at the helm of the navy — Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd — would step in on an interim basis and serve as vice-chief "effective immediately."
Under Defence Department procedures, Norman would have been given a letter detailing the allegations against him and he would have had 48 hours to respond.
The letter was apparently served to him Monday morning, but the internal directive ordering that he hand over his post was signed and dated on Friday.
Removal shocks colleagues
Sources say Norman was not in the office during the latter half of last week. The official explanation was that he was "working on a special project," but it is now believed that the crisis came to a head internally around that time.
His removal caught many at National Defence headquarters by surprise, with several key staff finding out news via media or social media.
Norman has a reputation as a no-nonsense straight-shooter.
He is overseeing an investigation into suicides and harassment at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.
And in 2014, he led a crackdown on heavy drinking and partying by sailors during off-duty hours following a spate of embarrassing incidents.