The questions being asked in the Maxime Bernier affair

The Maxime Bernier controversy has spawned the age-old line of questioning: Who knew what and when did they know and why didn't they act sooner?

The Maxime Bernier controversy has spawned the age-old line of questioning: Who knew what and when did they know and why didn't they act sooner?

There are also a number of even more basic questions that have been raised after it was revealed that the former foreign minister left classified documents at the Montreal home of his ex-girlfriend, Julie Couillard, in April, including the basic one most Canadians are likely asking — how could a minister do such a dumb thing and put his career in jeopardy?

The opposition, however, is not focusing on the "doh" factor but have called for a police investigation or some sort of formal probe into what they call an apparent security breach.

Maxime Bernier in the House of Commons on May 12. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

It is not clear what the documents, which were missing for five weeks before Couillard turned them in, contained exactly or what level of security classification they had been given. There are several classifications that run from confidential right up to top secret, special access and, so far, the government has only acknowledged that these fall somewhere on that axis.

Top secret often means a document incorporates confidential material from foreign governments or police or security agencies.

Until the exact classification is known, it is unclear what sanctions might be taken against Bernier on his responsibilities as a cabinet minister. There are a couple of government departments, including the Privy Council Office, that deal with the handling of such documents and they are not commenting right now.

NATO documents

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Monday in announcing his minister was quitting that Bernier committed a security error when he left the documents, which related to a NATO conference in April at which Canada was going to press countries to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Also on the NATO agenda at that conference was the U.S. plan to extend its controversial missile defence shield to Eastern Europe, which Russia was objecting to.

Harper described the incident as a "serious error" and said he does not feel national security was compromised.

However, he did not answer the opposition's main questions, including this basic one: Why didn't the Department of Foreign Affairs know of the missing documents?

Also, how can the prime minister be certain that the documents were never shown to anyone else in the five-week period that they were missing?

All we have at this point is Couillard's statement to the media that she finally showed them to her lawyer who advised her to return them to the government.

Did she read them and discuss their contents with anyone? That has never been fully probed. Nor has there been a clear reason offered why she didn't just call the minister in the first place when she found his papers in her home.

Investigating itself

The Conservative government has said it is conducting its own internal investigation, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, no less. But many will wonder if it is the right department to find out why the missing documents were not noticed. Classified documents are clearly labelled and recorded, but these ones were apparently not missed by the investigating department. Or they were just assumed to be under the minister's control.

"Why did it take the government five weeks to discover that documents were missing, and why did it take the government five weeks to ask a question either of the member for Beauce, the former minister, or of Madame Couillard?" Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae asked in the House of Commons.

Opposition members have also suggested Bernier's ex-girlfriend's former links to biker gang members, as well as the bid her company has made for a government contract, need to be examined. Is there anything in her past or her current network of friends that would make this five-week gap more than the awkward result of a relationship gone astray.

Should the RCMP or a formal inquiry investigate those issues? That is also up in the air.

Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh said Wednesday the government's overall handling of classified documents should be looked at, in light of the documents having gone missing for a month.

Oath of office

That call skips beyond the basic issues, however, which are, how did Bernier not miss the documents and what has he got to say about his own personal mishandling?

His official statement on May 28 two days after he resigned, said only: "Last Monday, I informed the prime minister of my resignation as Canada's minister of foreign affairs as soon as I became aware of a security breach whereby I forgot confidential government documents at Ms. Julie Couillard's residence. With humility, I take full and sole responsibility for my actions."

As part of the oath of office when cabinet ministers are sworn in they are required to say, "I shall keep secret all matters committed and revealed to me in this capacity, or that shall be secretly treated of in council."

That's a basic promise Bernier made when he was accompanied by Couillard last August in her now infamous dress and he was sworn in as foreign affairs minister.

Many are left wondering if Bernier violated that first promise or was just a forgetful man. Canadians will see for themselves when answers are slowly revealed.