RCMP allege Vice-Admiral Norman fed cabinet secrets to Quebec shipbuilder

Newly released court records accuse the military's second-in-command of sharing secret information and having a cosy relationship with the upstart shipyard that was vying to deliver the navy an interim supply ship.

RCMP detail cosy, back channel relationship in shipbuilding leaks, with admiral referred to as 'our friend'

The RCMP are accusing the military's second-in-command of passing cabinet secrets to a Quebec shipping executive in a cosy relationship meant to advance a navy project he "personally" favoured, according to a newly unsealed search warrant.

The court documents also say the Mounties suspect there were two government officials who possibly leaked classified shipbuilding information, but they do not name the other individual.

The documents establish a back-channel dialogue between Vice-Admiral Mark Norman and Spencer Fraser, the CEO of Federal Fleet Services (FFS).

The personal, sometimes profane, conversations started in mid-2015 soon after the former Conservative government entered into negotiations with the Levis, Que. company, CBC News has learned.

It went on for months — both before and after — the Mounties were called in to investigate a politically-explosive allegation that secret details of the company's Project Resolve program had been leaked to the media, a series of sources said.

The informal exchange, about the plan to lease a supply ship for the navy, was conducted outside the official procurement framework. It was considered — by some senior defence federal officials — to be "highly irregular, extraordinary," and even "unprofessional," said the sources, who spoke to CBC News on the condition of anonymity.

The court records released Wednesday detail what appears to be a tight, personal affinity between Norman and Fraser, who — when reporting to his bosses — referred to the admiral as "our friend." 

Cut-throat procurement

The documents also give an inkling of the ugly, cut-throat corporate, political and bureaucratic battles that have raged over the troubled federal shipbuilding program.

In one email, Norman laments how Irving Shipbuilding could trace the leak of a letter — sent to four federal cabinet ministers in November 2015 — to him.

He describes officials at the Nova Scotia-based shipyard as "assholes" because of their opposition to the federal government's decision to negotiate a sole-source contract with Chantier-Davie, the parent company of Federal Fleet Services.

"They couldn't just leave it alone," Norman wrote on Nov, 20, 2015. "Greedy and self serving."

The search warrant also reveals RCMP seized a memorandum to cabinet marked "secret" at the offices of Hill and Knowlton in Ottawa.

Covert monitoring

In addition, the RCMP obtained a separate warrant to "covertly" hack into the mobile devices and email accounts of suspects, including Norman.

However, "none of Noman's devices or email accounts were successfully accessed," something that prompted the Mounties to ask for permission to search the admiral's home and seize his electronics.

The records also show Norman asked Chantier-Davie officials to help discredit an analyst who criticised the temporary supply ship project.

The RCMP said they believed Norman had leaked cabinet documents, in addition to information, but couldn't prove it.

A heavily redacted version of the search warrant, released earlier this month, sketched out in broad strokes the RCMP's case, but a more detailed version was ordered released to the Globe and Mail, CBC News, CTV, and Postmedia last week.

It was unsealed Wednesday morning.

The latest version of the court records lay out more precisely the alleged trail of leaked classified information.

The RCMP claim Norman regularly kept Fraser in the loop, offering insight, opinions and clarification on what federal officials were up to as the company negotiated the finer points of its leased supply ship contract in the summer and fall of 2015.

Unusual deal

The deal was struck on the eve of the last federal election by the former Conservative government, which went to extraordinary lengths by amending the country's sole-source procurement regulations in order to make it happen.

That caught the eye of the newly elected Liberals, who on Nov. 19, 2015 ordered the project temporarily halted while they reviewed it.

Within hours news of the pause had leaked to the media and the next day CBC News reported on it and referenced a leaked letter, in which rival Irving Shipbuilding officials urged cabinet to review the program and consider their proposal.

The court records show Norman and Fraser emailed back and forth several times on the day the story broke, noting that officials in the Prime Minister's Office and the bureaucratic wing known as the Privy Council Office were "having kittens over references to explicit cabinet discussions" and were launching an internal investigation.

"The source of that document will be investigated by the RCMP and anyone associated with him will be part of their search," Norman warned Fraser on Nov. 25, 2015 after other cabinet leaks related to shipbuilding hit the media.

The Liberal cabinet eventually decided to proceed with the $660 million project, but remained furious that its hand had been forced.

"The rendering of this [classified information] into the public domain did an awful lot to limit our ability to really do what [the committee] intended to do, and that is more due diligence on this," Treasury Board President Scott Brison told the RCMP.

Attempts to kill the deal

Irving Shipbuilding may have wanted to kill the deal, but sources tell CBC News the Liberals were also deeply interested in finding out why former prime minister Stephen Harper's government rewrote the procurement regulations and what sort of political landmines might result from it.

An email from Fraser to his bosses, on Nov. 22, 2015, made reference to a conversation in which former Defence Minister — and later Justice Minister — Peter MacKay, "told Brison to get his head out of his ass."

The regulations were rewritten, multiple sources say, to prevent rival companies in the national shipbuilding program — Irving and Seaspan — from suing over the Chantier-Davie deal.

The navy was in desperate need of a supply ship since prematurely retiring its old ones.

Project Resolve was, in the opinion of both the navy and the Conservatives, a more complete proposal that met the military's immediate needs.
But that was not how some in the defence and public works establishment saw things.

They were opaquely referred in the court records as the "Knights of No."

"Cartoon concept," is how some senior officials took to describing the Chantier-Davie proposal, which they initially dismissed internally as not being complete, or fully costed.

Officials argued that the national shipbuilding strategy would deliver what was needed, even though the program to construct a Joint Support Ship at Seaspan, Vancouver, saw its delivery date slip from 2017 to 2021.

The Conservatives persisted, even though some senior bureaucrats and procurement officials at National Defence "did everything they could to kill" the deal, the sources said.

The officials were so determined that when it came to presenting cabinet with a proposal in 2015, a "130 per cent contingency" was apparently slapped into the estimated budget, inflating the overall price tag to make it politically unpalatable. 


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, 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.