How one defence staffer stood up for Access to Information

A lone civilian public affairs adviser for the Canadian army defied military officials last month and insisted on the public release of a potentially embarrassing email, according to newly released documents.

Public affairs adviser told to refuse CBC News request for letter, but said 'I won't do it'

CBC News's request for a letter by Lt.-Gen. Marquis Hainse, head of the Canadian army, warning army personnel not to leak information to the media touched off a lengthy debate with National Defence over how to respond. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A lone civilian public affairs adviser for the Canadian army defied military officials last month and insisted on the public release of a potentially embarrassing email, according to newly released documents.

Doug Drever, who has worked for the military for years, bucked his bosses and refused to follow instructions he apparently believed were unethical.

The exchange between Drever, senior military officers and Drever's bureaucratic overseers offers a rare inside glimpse at the contortions government can twist itself into as it weighs whether to make information public or keep it hidden.

Drever, who worked in the Prime Minister's Office under Brian Mulroney, said in an email exchange with military officers that he wouldn't tell a CBC reporter the request for a four-paragraph email sent by the army commander to his subordinates in December had been refused.

Gotta stand for something once in a while.—Doug Drever, public affairs adviser for the Canadian army

"This approach is wrong," Drever wrote to colleagues in an exchange released under Access to Information laws. "It is in violation of the spirit of the Access to Information Act and in defence to the Hon. Ged Baldwin, father of access to information in this country, I won't do it."

Gerald (Ged) Baldwin was a nine-term Progressive Conservative MP from Peace River, Alta., who was awarded the Order of Canada for his efforts to make government information freely accessible to Canadian citizens.

Drever suggested the military chain of command would have to order someone else to tell CBC News its request for the army letter had been refused.

The letter was written by Lt.-Gen. Marquis Hainse. It warned soldiers that giving information to the media without permission was in violation of military regulations.

"These incidents also represent a serious lapse in the ethical judgment and behaviour of some of our members who are tasked with handling information that may be of a sensitive nature," Hainse wrote in the letter last December.

Letter requested after media reports

In January, a media report made mention of the letter and the CBC asked the Defence Department for a copy. The Defence Department refused the request, but later relented and released it.

The emails released this week reveal senior public affairs officials inside the army, in the Strategic Joint Staff at National Defence Headquarters, and inside the upper echelons of the Defence Ministry itself, wanted to refuse that request, and instead force CBC to undertake the cumbersome process of applying for the letter under the Access to Information Act’s official process.

"The considered advice at this end is that the journalist should exercise his right as a Canadian to access government documents through the ATI process," Lt.-Col. Daryl Morrell, of the Strategic Joint Staff, told subordinates in the army.

Morrell had written the note in response to a request from the army for advice about how to handle the CBC News request.

Maj. George Vriniotis, the deputy director and head of operations at the Directorate of Army Public Affairs, had recommended to his bosses that the army refuse to release the letter. Vriniotis said he felt the army's public affairs and media relations unit should "not be involved" in releasing army correspondence to the media, but he appeared wary of airing his concerns in writing.

"We can further discuss the disadvantages of this option in person or over the phone," Vriniotis wrote.

Senior military command advisers at the Strategic Joint Staff then weighed in.

Morrell recommended to the Defence Department’s most senior communications adviser, associate deputy minister (Public Affairs) Edison Stewart, that the CBC request be refused.

"[CBC Reporter] is seeking a copy of an all staff email distributed by Lt.-Gen. Hainse in December regarding leaks to the media, his displeasure of said leaks, and potential charges for further leaks," Morrell wrote to Stewart.

"The question is whether we give the journalist the email or was [ask] that he go through the ATI process to access internal correspondence. My advice would be ask him to go through ATI.  Thoughts?"

In a one-line response Stewart responded: "I agree.  Tx."

'No, I won't'

Eventually, Drever was told to refuse to divulge the documents to the CBC. That's when Drever took a stand.

"This approach is ill-considered," he wrote in one email.
Doug Drever, left, seen in 2004, worked in the Prime Minister's Office under Brian Mulroney before his career as a civilian public affairs adviser to the military. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The advice seemed to spark a renewed round of debate, with Drever apparently convincing senior army staff to review its plan.

"Army reconsidering this approach as it violates the spirit of the ATIA, is obviously a delaying tactic, unnecessarily antagonizes a senior defence journalist, contents of [the letter] are already in the public domain," Drever wrote back to senior staff.

By that afternoon, the army had apparently decided to reject the advice from the high-powered Strategic Joint Staff and release the army commander's letter, as its existence was already public, and the letter itself was unclassified.

"Army intent is to provide the text … as requested, consistent with the spirit of the Access to Information Act."

Then DND headquarters changed the plan again. Drever was ordered to advise CBC to ask for the documents through Access to Information rather than release them.

"Actually … No, I won't,” he said in one email. 

"Gotta stand for something once in a while,” he added in another.

Drever told the army team to get someone else to refuse the request.

Eighteen minutes later, a subordinate, Capt. Denny Brown, reported, "Mission accomplished."

Before his years with the military, Drever worked on Parliament Hill. He started his public service in the 1980s working for former Progressive Conservative MP Marcel Lambert, and worked his way up to a position in the Prime Minister's Office. It appears those decades in Ottawa taught Drever not to be afraid of his convictions:

He sent an email to Morrell, the public affairs adviser inside the Strategic Joint Staff, criticizing him for suggesting the government should refuse to simply release the letter.

"Seems like there is not much these days we agree on," he wrote. "Pity."

In the end, it would appear Drever's prodding bore fruit. The Department of National Defence changed its mind and released the letter by that day's end.

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