Politics·Analysis

National Defence won't disclose whether Mark Norman signed a non-disclosure deal

It could be a remarkable illustration of catch-22. The Department of National Defence officially refused on Friday to acknowledge the existence of non-disclosure agreement with soon-to-be-retired Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.

'There was a lot of shock' over treatment of vice-admiral, military analyst says

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman leaves court with his lawyers Marie Henein, right, and Christine Mainville in Ottawa on May 8. Norman may have signed a non-disclosure agreement in his retirement settlement. National Defence is not talking. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

It could be a remarkable illustration of catch-22.

The Department of National Defence officially refused on Friday to acknowledge the existence of non-disclosure agreement with soon-to-be-retired Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.

Lawyers for the former vice-chief of the defence staff reached a settlement with the federal government this week, the details of which were to remain confidential.

The department was asked by CBC News whether the terms of the settlement included a non-disclosure agreement, which would prevent Norman from ever publicly discussing the circumstances surrounding his case.

In May, a charge of breach of trust against Norman, who was accused of leaking cabinet secrets in relation to a shipbuilding deal, was stayed by the prosecution.

Whether there is a gag order — or whether there is not — is confidential. 

"All available details have already been released," said spokesman Dan Le Bouthillier in an email response to a request for clarification by CBC News.

"Following discussions that were held in good faith, a mutually acceptable agreement was reached for which details will remain confidential." 

The settlement was undertaken independently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Saturday at a closing news conference of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. Trudeau did not say why it was reached, explaining "that's a conversation between the vice-admiral and the ministry of national defence."

The blanket of secrecy is giving ammunition to the opposition Conservatives, who demanded to know not only the size of the financial settlement, but to waive the confidentiality.

"Anything less than full disclosure would amount to a coverup," Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said in a statement Friday.

Non-disclosure agreements are becoming all the rage at the defence and procurement services departments, said a defence expert.

More than 230 military and federal employees working on the purchase of new fighter jets were forced to sign a lifetime confidentiality agreement, according to documents tabled in Parliament two years ago. That was extended a year ago the companies bidding to replace the CF-18s.

'I have an important story to tell'

It is troubling that the very public prosecution of Norman, the second most powerful member of the military, has sent a chill through the entire federal establishment, said Dave Perry, an analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

"There was a lot of shock that someone in his position could be treated like this," said Perry.

"There's been a bit of Norman effect which has governed whether certain people feel comfortable speaking in certain circumstances. I've definitely noticed an impact from that. People are a lot more reticent, depending on the circumstance, to actually talk about things."

In other countries that actually take military matters more seriously, it would be unthinkable to have a case like this against a person like that drag on for even a quarter as long as this proceeding did.—Dave Perry, Canadian Global Affairs Institute

With accusations of leaking cabinet secrets and charges of breach of trust, Norman's case made for riveting political and institutional theatre in Ottawa.

When the Crown stayed the charge against him on May 8, the long-silent career military man seemed eager to tell his side of the story.

"I have an important story to tell that Canadians will want and need to hear," he said. "It is my intention in the coming days to tell that story. Not to lay blame, but to ensure we all learn from this experience."

'Perceived bias of guilt'

Aside from granting one interview to Postmediain which he talked about the personal toll the case has exacted upon him and his family, Norman has remained silent and out of the public spotlight.

His one and only general media availability on the day the criminal case was dropped raised several important public interest issues related to the administration of justice and defence policy.

According to Norman, he was presumed to be guilty without ever being heard in court.   

"The alarming and protracted perceived bias of guilt across the senior levels of government has been quite damaging," he said.

"I spoke about a bias. I didn't speak directly about the leadership. My comments were directed at a systematic bias that developed over the early days of this investigation and subsequently through the last two years. How that bias occurred. Why? Who was involved? Those are all conversations for another day."

'I think it's a shame'

A non-disclosure agreement virtually guarantees that day will never come.

There are lots of "questions that need to be asked and answered" about what happened, Norman said on May 8.

"And I think some people who have been involved in this need to reflect on what happened, why it happened and their role in that."

Perry said he sees no sign anyone within the machinery of the federal government doing any "formal stocktaking" and "it's too bad" because, among other things, the handling of the case illustrated how different branches of government have absolutely no understanding about things work.

Beyond that, Perry said, it seems as if those whom Norman accused of institutional bias have never asked themselves why a highly decorated naval officer might put his career on the line and why the former Conservative government felt compelled to short-circuit the regular procurement system in order to deliver a leased supply ship to the navy — the policy issue at the centre of the case.

All that seemed to matter was that the code of silence — the confidentiality of government — was never broken.

"I think it's a shame, but it is reflective of the way it was handled," said Perry.

"In other countries that actually take military matters more seriously, it would be unthinkable to have a case like this against a person like that drag on for even a quarter as long as this proceeding did."

At the close of his news conference, Norman spoke directly to journalists in what — with the hindsight of almost two months, a secret settlement and a non-disclosed non-disclosure agreement — appears to be a challenge: "I wish you the best in pursuing whatever truth you need to find as a result of this conversation today."

And that may very well be the last word on the Norman affair.

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.

With files from The Canadian Press

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