When government information goes astray

For all the attempts to keep government secrets secret, they can still spill out, as Canada's natural resources minister, Lisa Raitt, found out recently when documents related to Canada's nuclear industry were left behind at a TV news bureau.

Confidential government information may fill big binders and have "Top Secret" stamped on it in red ink. Or maybe it's secured inside an encrypted laptop supposed to be kept in its owner's possession at all times.

But for all the attempts to keep government secrets secret, they can still spill out, as Canada's natural resources minister, Lisa Raitt, found out recently when an old audiotape turned up, and when documents related to Canada's nuclear industry were left behind at a TV news bureau.

Such wayward information is hardly a rarity: another member of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet resigned after he left a confidential document behind at his former girlfriend's apartment. More recently, a U.S. government document listing nuclear sites was accidentally published on the internet — and quickly removed.

Other sensitive Canadian government documents have turned up lying on the street or in the trash. In the United Kingdom, the government has a long and embarrassing record of laptops and confidential documents turning up in full public view on the train or at McDonald's.

Here's a look at some instances of sensitive information going astray.

Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt, left, and her former press secretary, Jasmine MacDonnell, are seen leaving a news conference in Ottawa. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

Lisa Raitt, spring 2009

Canada's natural resources minister found herself in the spotlight twice over sensitive information finding its way into the public realm: first in a misplaced binder, and second, on an abandoned audio recording, both apparently left behind by her (now former) press secretary. In the wake of the audio recording, in which Raitt referred to the medical isotope shortage as "sexy," Prime Minister Stephen Harper stuck by the minister. It was the second time Harper stood by Raitt, with the prime minister rejecting her  offer to resign after documents related to Canada's nuclear industry were left at CTV's news bureau in Ottawa. Raitt later accepted the resignation of her press secretary, Jasmine MacDonnell, over that incident.

U.S. nuclear secrets, June 2009

In the United States, the federal government accidentally posted online a list of nuclear facilities, but officials insisted the information didn't threaten the nation's security. The posting on the Government Printing Office website was quickly removed.

Maxime Bernier, April 2008

Maxime Bernier resigned his post as Canada's minister of foreign affairs after he left a confidential document at the apartment of his former girlfriend, Julie Couillard. Prime Minister Stephen Harper accepted the resignation, and said leaving a confidential document in an unsecured area is a "very serious error for any minister."

Anti-terror unit blueprints, March 2008

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said the federal government would investigate  after blueprints for a new building for the military's counterterrorism unit were reportedly found in a pile of trash in downtown Ottawa.

Sensitive documents, Ottawa, August 2008

A sensitive government document detailing a classified computer database was found lying on an Ottawa street in a rain-stained, tire-marked brown envelope. The document was a risk assessment of an Environment Canada classified environmental enforcement database used by officers to track and prosecute polluters and environmental law-breakers.

Marc Lalonde, federal budget, 1983

During a pre-budget photo session in the office of then-finance minister Marc Lalonde, a TV cameraman from CHCH-TV in Hamilton, Ont., zoomed in on budget numbers on papers lying on Lalonde's desk. To deflect charges that his deficit forecast was leaked, Lalonde decided to boost spending in the final budget document, which allowed him to claim that the correct deficit figure hadn't really been leaked.

Ontario budget documents, 1983

The Globe and Mail published details from Ontario's 1983 provincial budget four days before it was tabled at Queen's Park. A Globe reporter had found budget documents in a garbage bag discarded outside the plant where the budget was being printed. The Globe reported a few days later that police would not lay any charges against the newspaper or any of its employees for taking the documents, and that the government said, "Placement of material in garbage bags was precipitated by a malfunctioning shredding machine."

Top British counterterrorism officer, April 2009

Britain's top counterterrorism officer resigned after inadvertently revealing details of confidential documents. Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, who served as the senior police counterterrorism officer for Britain, was photographed carrying the documents into a meeting with Prime Minister Gordon Brown at 10 Downing St.

U.K. government laptops, documents, 2004-09

There has been an embarrassing litany of lost and misplaced sensitive information in Britain in recent years. In July 2008, the BBC reported that the U.K. Ministry of Defence admitted more than 650 laptops had been stolen over the previous four years — nearly double the figure previously claimed. One laptop was taken when the thief nabbed it from under the chair of an army captain eating at McDonald's. Another 28 laptops were lost or stolen in the first part of this year. Other secret documents have been left in a taxi or on a train.