Neil Macdonald: Government sensitivity over you hearing about 'sensitive' information

Canadian democracy has, we are told, been maliciously undermined at Citizenship and Immigration because someone there apparently had the gall to tell a journalist about the Prime Minister's Office overriding the professionals in the department.

Deputy minister calls in the RCMP after media leaks at her department

If information had been divulged by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander's department as a matter of public accountability, there'd be no need to call the police to investigate the leaking of said information, writes Neil Macdonald. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

Canadian democracy has, we are told, been maliciously undermined at Citizenship and Immigration, and the department's top public servant is determined to set things right, on behalf of the Canadian people.

Deputy Minister Anita Biguzs has declared herself "deeply concerned." What has happened, she says, is an ethical erosion of the very cornerstone of the trust and democratic function of government.

Now, before you go leaping to conclusions, Biguzs was not talking about the prime minister's political staff overriding the professionals in her department who were choosing which Syrian refugees will be lucky enough to end up in Canada.

Anita Biguzs, deputy minister of citizenship and immigration, has called in the RCMP to investigate leaks from her department to the media. (Citizenship and Immigration Canada)

Nor is she talking about the near-total absence of public transparency in her department, which has made it nearly impossible for a member of the public to reach anything other than a voice mail message. ("If we started taking public calls, we'd never get any work done," a departmental spokeswoman told me a few weeks ago, with no evident irony.)

No, what has provoked Biguzs's anger, and determination for a reckoning, is that someone under her command apparently had the gall to tell a journalist — and thereby the Canadian public — about the PMO overriding the professionals in her department.

Leaks during campaign

Biguzs is also deeply concerned that someone told Radio-Canada — and thereby the public — a few weeks earlier about security issues with Canadian passports.

"Leaks such as these are unethical and are against the law," declared Biguzs in a memo (co-signed, for dramatic effect, by Richard Wex, an associate deputy in charge of "values and ethics").

"As such, we have contacted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who have now launched an investigation. The trust that the public, our partners and elected officials have in us is the cornerstone of our democratic functions."

Her memo about the leaks was promptly leaked to Radio-Canada, no doubt undermining democracy further in Biguzs's estimation, and making the need for police action even more urgent.

Now, it's hardly news that government ministers and mandarins loathe leakers and sometimes try to hunt them down.

But given the curtain of unprecedented secrecy that has dropped between Canadians and their federal government in the past 10 years, Biguzs's declaration that democracy is under threat at her department is something that might have inspired George Orwell. Or Franz Kafka.

Think about it:

The Prime Minister's Office took the exceptional step last spring of muscling aside immigration officers who are trained in applying Canadian immigration law, because the prime minister was concerned about the "integrity" of what they were doing.

This was hardly a top-secret operation by the PMO, the disclosure of which would endanger our national security. Had it been, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander would not have confirmed the story after it was reported by the Globe and Mail, which he did, and Stephen Harper would not have justified it publicly as a matter of routine governance, which he did.

Yes, it was brought forth during an election. But that was actually pretty timely. The question of Canada's policy toward Syrian refugees has at times dominated the campaign, and voters are hungry for details, and if the PMO intervention was just routine governance, what's wrong with the voters knowing about it?

In any event, Canadians got to hear the details, and the prime minister's explanation, and can now factor that information into their vote.

Some might call that democracy.

'Sensitive' vs. 'classified'

Similarly, when Radio-Canada reported in September that the government had authorized the continued issuance of passports under a new system that senior officials had warned contained security flaws, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson immediately declared that ensuring passport security is a top priority.

The flawed program was then suspended.

Again, the public was given information, and the government's explanation.

But to Biguzs and her fellow mandarins at Citizenship and Immigration, the public should never have been told any of these things in the first place, and the fact that it was constituted a grave crime.

Interestingly, Biguzs's memo does not call the information leaked "classified." She calls it "sensitive." There's a big difference.

Classified information is an official secret, determined by security professionals to be potentially injurious to national security. (Or at least that's supposed to be how it works.)

Disclosing an official secret is a crime.

"Sensitive information," on the other hand, is anything the government doesn't want the public to know, and, as noted, the government that Biguzs has served for a decade doesn't want the public to know much.

Prosecuting embarrassment

Using Biguzs's logic, federal scientists who decide the public should know about a scientific finding about the quality of the air we breathe or water we drink are unethical underminers of democracy, too, unless they seek permission to speak, which is rather difficult to obtain nowadays in Ottawa.

Of course, when a government does want reporters to know something, the information is suddenly not sensitive at all anymore, and democracy is well-served by its disclosure, sometimes even — and I speak here with some experience — when it's an official secret.

In the case of the immigration and passport stories, apparently, the government was embarrassed, so the RCMP are now stalking the department's hallways, further intimidating an already scared group of bureaucrats.

Politicians, including Harper's Conservatives, love to talk about the supreme importance of accountability. It is a word that has been milked, flogged and ridden practically to death.

So Biguzs and her political masters might want to ponder this: If the information about the refugee review and the faulty passports had been divulged in a timely fashion, as a matter of public accountability, democracy would not only have been served, there'd be no need to call the police.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.