Navy's mishandling of classified documents spawns series of investigations

The Canadian military conducted almost a dozen formal internal investigations into the "loss or compromise" of classified information during a six year period, and over half of them involved the navy, internal defence department data shows.

Mishandling of secret information in the navy resulted in at least 6 internal DND investigations since 2010

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman speaks during a change-of-command ceremony in 2016. He was suspended in early 2017 over alleged leaks of classified data. The RCMP has refused to confirm or deny it is investigating. (CBC)

The Canadian military conducted almost a dozen formal internal investigations into the "loss or compromise" of classified information during a six year period, and over half of them involved the navy, internal defence department data shows.

The handling — or mishandling — of secrets was a growing concern among the top brass and civilian leadership even before the recent suspension of the country's deputy military commander, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.

He was relieved of his responsibility, but not stripped of command, in early January after the RCMP opened what sources have said is a national security investigation.

The Mounties, although they will not confirm or deny it, are looking for the source of leaks, possibly involving the federal government's multi-billion dollar shipbuilding program.

Growing concern

Last summer, the chief of defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, and the deputy defence minister, John Forster, issued a directive that "re-emphasized" the proper handling of documents and data and took additional action to "prevent unauthorized disclosure of classified information," said Suzanne Parker, a spokeswoman for the department.

Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, issued a directive last year 're-emphasizing' the importance of properly handling classified information. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Not only were military and civilian staff at the Department of National Defence subject to the formal notice, but civilian contractors embedded in the department were given a reminder and training.

Between 2010 and the end of 2016, the military conducted 11 boards of inquiry into the loss or jeopardizing of secret information, according to figures from the department's administrative investigation support centre.

At least six of them involved the navy, and half of those investigations fell within the jurisdiction of the Pacific fleet headquarters in Esquimalt, B.C.

Another spokeswoman, Ashley Lemire, said the bulk of the cases took place between 2010 and 2014 and the number of inquiries has started to taper off with no investigations recorded last year.

National Defence refused to disclose the nature of each breach and the outcome of the investigation, which were not criminal in nature but still had the potential to lead to disciplinary action against members.

Boards of inquiry are intended to be an "internal process to inform the [chief of defence staff] and not a public inquiry," said Lemire, who added none of the reports have been sent to outside agencies, such as the RCMP, for further action.

The mishandling of secrets could be something as simple as leaving a filing cabinet open — all of the way up to the inadvertent disclosure of data in public.

Previous cases

Recently, a former top national security adviser told CBC News that leaks of classified information at DND prompted him on a couple of occasions to call in the RCMP.

Richard Fadden, who served as head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, deputy minister of defence and national security adviser to two prime ministers, says he never worried top secret information was going out the door.

The focus of his worry involved lower grades of classified records and data.

"Over the course of my career, I've either asked for or ordered a number of [RCMP] inquiries to be made when classified information has been leaked," Fadden told the CBC News in early February.

"It is almost impossible to find who does it."

The only major incident over the last six years involved the case of former sub-lieutenant Jeffrey Delisle, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2013 after spying for the Russians.

Richard Fadden is a former deputy minister of defence and national security adviser to the prime minister. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Some of the less serious RCMP investigations that may have taken place at Fadden's behest include police inquiries into how the media got hold of a federal cabinet decision that temporarily halted plans to lease a new military supply ship. That took place in late 2015 and was reported by both CBC News and The Canadian Press.

The Mounties also probed a 2014 leak into the former Conservative government's decision to sole-source the $800-million purchase of new Sea Sparrow missiles for the navy's patrol frigates. That 2014 story was reported by Postmedia.

There has been speculation that the investigation into Norman is part of a wider-ranging attempt to plug leaks at the Defence Department.

Although, the RCMP and National Defence have refused to formally accuse him of anything, Norman's lawyer said last week he is looking forward to clearing his name through an "objective investigation."

Marie Henein issued a six-line statement on his behalf Thursday saying it would be a "profound disservice" if Norman was to be the casualty of "bureaucratic crossfire."

Canada's second-highest military commander is apparently accused of leaking classified information within the navy. But the country's top Mountie still won't say what sort of investigation the force is conducting 1:59

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.