Mark Norman says he has 'a story to tell' — but can he tell it?

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman says he wants to tell his story — but as long as he's still in uniform, his remarks will have to be careful and measured since he is (as experts point out) still governed by military regulations.

As long as the vice-admiral is in uniform, he faces strict limits on what he can discuss in public

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman arrives at court in Ottawa on Thursday, March 28, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman says he wants to tell his story — but as long as he's still in uniform, his remarks will have to be careful and measured since he is (as experts point out) still governed by military regulations.

And those rules — the Queen's Regulations and Orders — specifically prohibit serving members from criticizing their superiors and government policy in public.

A narrow exception would be made if the former second-in-command of the military is called to testify before a Parliamentary committee, said retired colonel Michel Drapeau, a military law expert.

"The rules are crystal clear," said Drapeau. "They go on for pages as to what you cannot do and what you cannot publish."

Norman, the former commander of the navy, was charged with a single count of breach of trust after being accused of leaking cabinet secrets. While he's told journalists that he still has an "important story to tell" about the experience, he has not spoken publicly, nor given any interviews, since the day the Crown dropped the case against him.

He has said he wants to return to duty and the country's top military commander said Wednesday he will be welcomed back "soon."

Retirement or silence?

National Defence was asked Wednesday whether Norman had been granted permission to speak and under what conditions.

Norman has permission to do interviews "in his official capacity on matters related to his job and within his personal areas of expertise" as a member of the military, a department spokesman said.

"He is a highly experienced and successful officer who has served with distinction and commanded at all levels in the Canadian Armed Forces and we have no doubt that he will continue to be an outstanding spokesperson on behalf of the institution," said Dan Le Bouthillier.

Retired lieutenant-colonel Rory Fowler, a former military lawyer now in private practice, said Norman would be able to speak freely if he retired completely from the military. Otherwise, he said, Norman would face the prospect of punishment.

"He runs the risk of being prosecuted under the code of service discipline" if he crosses certain lines and levels specific criticism, he said — particularly if that criticism is aimed at other government agencies, such as the public prosecution service.

Norman would, however, be able to speak more freely in front of Parliament — and that makes Thursday's decision on whether to hold House of Commons committee hearings even more important, said Conservative defence critic James Bezan.

The defence committee will debate a motion by the Conservatives and NDP to hold hearings on the investigation that led to Norman's prosecution.

'Miscarriage of justice'

Bezan said the committee is likely the only near-term opportunity to get at the truth of why the vice-admiral was prosecuted in the first place, how the case against him collapsed so swiftly, and whether there was political interference.

"The only venue where he can come in and speak his truth, just like Jody Wilson-Raybould in the SNC Lavalin scandal, is to do it before a Parliamentary committee," he said.

It will be the Liberal members of the defence committee who decide whether to hold those hearings, Bezan said

"If they deny him this opportunity to speak his truth, deny him this opportunity to explain how this has impacted him and his family, it will be another miscarriage of justice," he said. "Canadians and Parliamentarians need to know what happened."

There might be another roadblock in the way of Norman telling what he knows to Parliament, however. As with the SNC-Lavalin scandal, much of Norman's case turned on matters of cabinet confidence and cabinet secrets.

Former justice minister Wilson-Raybould needed a waiver from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau before she could testify earlier this year before another Commons committee.

Bezan said he doubts a waiver would be needed for Norman because the committee could simply choose to question him on matters that are already part of the public record.

One way around the cabinet secrets obstacle, said Fowler, would be for the committee to take some portion of his testimony behind closed doors.

"There might be some restriction on [his testimony] if he's asked questions of a security nature," said Fowler.

Drapeau said he finds it hard to believe the Liberal members of the committee will allow Norman — or anyone else — to testify because it would only continue the "hemorrhaging of bad news."


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