PMO scripted Afghan mission message: records

The Conservative government used pervasive message management to persuade Canadians their foremost purpose in Afghanistan was building schools and fostering democracy rather than waging war.

The Conservative government used pervasive message management to persuade Canadians their foremost purpose in Afghanistan was building schools and fostering democracy rather than waging a war that was turning bloodier by the day.   

An investigation by The Canadian Press shows Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives systematically drafted "message event proposals" (MEPs) as part of a quiet campaign to persuade Canadians their country was primarily engaged in development work to rebuild a shattered nation rather than hunting down and killing an emboldened insurgency.

Arif Lalani, Canada's former ambassador to Afghanistan, speaks to the CBC in a 2008 interview in London. ((CBC))

The government used MEPs to script the words it wanted to hear from the mouths of its top diplomats, aid workers and cabinet ministers in 2007-08 to divert public attention from the soaring double-digit death toll of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

While the message was being massaged in Ottawa, the reconstituted Taliban unleashed a fresh wave of attacks on NATO troops and innocent Kandaharis.

"Desired sound bite: 'Canada's mission in Afghanistan is refocusing its mission towards development, reconstruction and diplomatic efforts,'" says an MEP prepared by the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic wing that serves the Prime Minister's Office.

The document, among hundreds of MEPs obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, was prepared for a 2008 media tour by Arif Lalani, then the Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan. 

Other records show the government went so far as to script an identical set of quotes and talking points for two returning aid workers, who were supposed to be giving separate interviews on their "personal perspective" on progress in Afghanistan.

The government also tried to soft-pedal deployment of the first group of Quebec-based troops in 2007 by giving them a "compassionate" send-off that was designed to "showcase the achievements in development."

"That was clearly what the message was — Afghanistan is about development, CIDA, building schools, building roads, helping Afghans, which is all good stuff … but not necessarily to the exclusion of reality," said a senior government official who worked in the PCO but asked not to be named because of fears of career reprisals.

There is nothing new about a wartime government trying to mould public opinion. But for the first time, documents detail how the Harper government attempted to shape perceptions of Canada's fiercest combat mission since the Korean War.   

The Conservatives introduced the MEP, a relatively new information-management tool, which enables Harper's office to centrally control a wide array of government communication. Federal departments are required to submit proposals to the PCO for public events and responses to media inquiries. The PMO ultimately decides what can occur and what should be said.

A PCO spokeswoman has defended the government's use of MEPs, saying they are a tool for communication. The Prime Minister's Office has declined comment.

'We were used politically'

The strategy doesn't sit well with Nipa Banerjee, who headed Canada's aid program in Kabul from 2003 to 2006 before the Canadian Forces moved to Kandahar.

"It bothers me a bit now because I think we were used politically at that time," said Banerjee, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa graduate school of public and international affairs.

In May 2008, with 83 soldiers and one diplomat dead, Lalani returned to Canada for a four-day blitz aimed squarely at reshaping the public's view of the war.

A three-page MEP prepared by the PCO outlined 10 sets of possible interviews that Lalani could give May 26-30 with major television, radio and print organizations across the country.

CTV's Sunday political talk show Question Period topped the list.

"This appearance would serve to move the national narrative forward beyond the parliamentary arena and refocus Canadians' interest in Canada's civilian efforts in Afghanistan, emphasizing development, reconstruction and diplomacy efforts," the MEP says.

An interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge was also recommended, noting that because his program Mansbridge One on One "styles itself as a window into the lives of Canadian decision makers and influencers, ambassador Lalani can leverage this opportunity to stress Canada's increased civilian focus, emphasizing development, reconstruction and diplomacy efforts."

CIDA, meanwhile, tried to put forward its returning Kandahar-based employees for interviews to highlight development efforts.

"First-hand accounts by Canadians who have lived and worked in Afghanistan add credibility to Canada's role," states one MEP.

Helene Kadi, in Kandahar from September 2006 to August 2007, was cleared to do several interviews. "Helene has gained experience and confidence in giving on-air statements," says a Feb. 5, 2008, MEP.

The document laid out the desired "headline" for a proposed 10-minute interview by Kadi on a CBC Radio morning show in Thunder Bay, Ont.: "Perspective from the ground: Canada makes progress in terms of development and reconstruction in Afghanistan."

But Kadi's MEP contained the same key messages — word for word — as one prepared for another CIDA employee, whose own "personal perspective and reflections" were scripted for him.

On Feb. 12, 2008, returning CIDA manager Kevin Rex gave an interview to weekly Alberta newspaper the Airdrie Echo.

The separate MEPs for Kadi and Rex specified the same "key message" for each: "As a returned CIDA field staff, I have seen and experienced first-hand the accomplishments and results achieved in Afghanistan, thanks to Canada's role in that country." 

Their respective MEPs repeated other messages — verbatim.