A rogue group of Mounties investigating the leak of a secret document spied on two Canadian journalists for more than a week without any authorization, CBC News has learned.
The RCMP investigators placed two Ottawa-based reporters under physical surveillance for nine days in 2007 in the hope they might lead them to the unidentified leaker, who could then be arrested.
The leaked government document referred to suspected terrorist Adil Charkaoui, alleging he had discussed blowing up a plane in 2000.
Only after the surveillance of the reporters had occurred did officers ask their RCMP bosses for the required permission. They were immediately denied authorization, and told to cease the surveillance.
The bombshell revelation about a national police agency spying without authorization on Canadian journalists appears in a document obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.
The partly censored briefing note for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was written after media reports appeared last November detailing Project Standard.
That was the official name of the Mountie probe into the leak of a 2003 secret document, created by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), to journalists working for the Montreal newspaper La Presse.
The November media reports cited a court document, disclosed in a civil case against the federal government, that said the RCMP had planned to watch the two Ottawa-based journalists, Joel-Denis Bellavance and Gilles Toupin.
Rules tightened after earlier raid
But the newly released briefing note goes much further, noting that the planned surveillance was actually carried out — and without the required permission of Bob Paulson, then an acting assistant commissioner. Paulson has since become the commissioner of the RCMP.
"Investigators conducted physical surveillance on two journalists — [names removed] — without proper internal authorization and contrary to RCMP policy for a period of nine days in August 2007," says the note, headlined "Project Standard – Sensitive Sectors."
"Investigators were attempting to identify the person leaking material to these reporters."
Bellavance says he had no idea he was being followed.
"That is a bit shocking because police usually operate under strict guidelines," he told CBC News on Wednesday. "I hope this isn't a common way of doing things."
Bellavance also revealed that Paulson met him in person last fall to apologize for the operation, confirming for the first time that the journalist had been under actual surveillance. Bellavance said he accepted the apology, but did not report it, adding he was shocked to learn through CBC News that Paulson had later authorized partial surveillance.
In an email to CBC News, Paulson confirmed the main details of Project Standard, saying that the immediate supervisors of the surveillance team also knew of the unauthorized surveillance operation.
"No discipline beyond the documented reprimand was applied," he said, adding: "I am not aware of any other cases where journalists were followed. There may be, but I am not aware of any others."
The rogue team was acting contrary to the RCMP rule book for investigations into so-called "sensitive sectors," a term that refers to criminal probes involving academia, politics, religion, the media and trade unions.
That rule book was rewritten and made more restrictive following a scathing Ontario Superior Court ruling into the case of Ottawa journalist Juliet O'Neill, whose home was raided in 2004 by RCMP officers in search of a leak.
An Ontario high court judge ruled in 2006 that the raid was based on an unconstitutional section of the law, and should not have been allowed.
Approval granted months after operation
The officers investigating the La Presse leaks applied to their bosses three more times for permission to spy on the two reporters. They were denied permission for the first two requests, made Aug. 25 and Aug. 31, 2007. But the Goodale briefing note says they were given a partial green light on the third try, in 2008.
"Limited physical surveillance was approved, however no surveillance was ever conducted." The note does not explain why officers did not carry out surveillance when they had finally received permission.
The document says Project Standard, launched in 2007, concluded in November 2014 — with no word on whether the source of the leak was ever identified.
- 2011: Charkaoui believes CSIS leak deliberate, 'disgusting'
- 2007: Reporter questioned in Charkaoui's bid to have bail conditions lifted
- 2007: RCMP will probe leak against alleged Montreal terrorist
The document says the rogue team — its members are not identified in the note — received "criticism" for not seeking approval for the first nine-day surveillance operation.
"While journalists have no privilege or immunity from investigation, the application of the RCMP's sensitive sector approval policy recognizes that the state's interests in the investigation of crime and the freedom of the press (or religious/academic freedom) need to be balanced appropriately on a case-by-case basis," says the note, approved by Commissioner Paulson himself on Nov. 13 last year.
"Vital to maintaining this balance is the centralized independent governance of these criminal investigations — a framework that was just being implemented at the time of these events in 2007."
Another briefing note prepared Dec. 2, 2015, to help Goodale respond to any questions in the House of Commons, is silent on the nine-day unauthorized surveillance operation.
However, it acknowledges that the RCMP did give permission in 2008.
"Conditional and limited surveillance was approved, but not undertaken, a full year later in 2008," says the note, "when it became clear that it was the only option remaining to identify the perpetrator(s) of this serious breach of national security."
The CSIS document leaked to La Presse referred to suspected terrorist Adil Charkaoui.
Bellavance told CBC News that after he wrote the 2007 story, he decided to limit his contacts with his source to let things "cool off."
The source was never approached by the RCMP, apparently never identified, and remains free today.
The incident "will probably lead to reforms," Bellavance said.
Following the November media reports of the RCMP's plans to spy on the La Presse journalists, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to look into the case, saying he believes a free and independent press is an essential part of a strong democracy.
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