Politics

Top military commander says 'codenames' are really routine military jargon

Canada's top general says the military routinely uses a wide variety of jargon, acronyms and pseudonyms, but he is not aware of the use of codenames to suppress the release of documents.

Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance took the stand at Norman's pretrial hearing for breach of trust case

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance is on the stand today at a pre-trial hearing in the breach-of-trust case of his second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Canada's top general says the military routinely uses a wide variety of jargon, acronyms and pseudonyms — but he denies the suggestion that codenames are used to suppress the release of documents.

Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance took the stand today at a pre-trial hearing for his second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.

The former navy commander has been charged with one count of breach of trust and is accused of leaking cabinet secrets related to a $668 million contract to lease a supply ship for the navy.

Today, Vance was grilled by Norman's lawyer, Marie Henein, who is battling the government to get documents relevant to her client's defence.

Responding to earlier testimony that suggested the military deliberately uses codenames to thwart the release of documents, Vance drew a sharp distinction between the widespread use of military parlance and the deliberate use of words in an "underhanded" way to avoid key word searches.

"If there's a sinister effort by some to use something completely unassociated with the normal vernacular to try and bury communications, that would be very serious and would be a problem in terms of access," he said.

On Tuesday, the defence team produced a list of words used in documentation to refer to Norman that it had obtained through Access to Information. They include Kracken, MN3, C34 and The Boss. Vance said he didn't see anything on the list that would qualify as a codeword.

"These would be very much the norm," he said.

Vance denied the use of codewords in an interview with CBC News in December 2018, when he said he was shocked by the suggestion the military was using them to deliberately withhold documents, and said he would be "disgusted" if it were true. That Dec. 21, 2018 article was entered as an exhibit in court.

After last month's testimony, Vance said he relayed his concern to his deputy minister. When he saw the list of names potentially used in documents, he asked that the search be retasked to fulfill the defence team's request for full documentation.

When the defence team filed the information access request for the list of codewords used, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's office claimed an exemption. That prompted the defence today to issue a subpoena to his chief of staff, Zita Astravas. She is called to testify Thursday morning.

Quick call with PM

Earlier, Vance told the court that he spoke just once — and only for seconds — to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about Norman's breach of trust case.

The brief call came after the top general met with RCMP officials about the case. Vance said he also met with Trudeau's principal secretary and chief of staff to brief the office on what he had learned from the RCMP on Jan. 9, 2017.

He said all his communications with Trudeau and his staff were verbal and that he took no notes on the conversations.

"I have no record," he told the court.

The Crown alleges Norman, the former navy commander, leaked information about the results of a Liberal cabinet decision to put the leasing project on hold in November 2015, shortly after the Liberals took office.

The government eventually went ahead with the leasing arrangement but launched a police investigation of the leaks.

Paper trail focus

The pre-trial hearing is focused on the paper trail around the case, and Norman's defence lawyers have accused the government of withholding records pertinent to the case.

Today, boxes of records were brought into the court, with multiple copies of each document: one copy redacted, a second marked for redaction and a third copy left clean.

Lawyers for former cabinet minister Scott Brison are also taking part in the hearing, bringing a new set of emails from the Nova Scotia MP's private account that had not yet been produced for the court. Norman's lawyers, and the Conservative opposition, have accused Brison of political interference in the shipbuilding deal at the centre of the case.

The defence says in a court filing that he tried to kill the $668 million plan to lease a naval supply ship from the Davie shipyard, in Lévis, Que. on behalf of a rival, Irving Shipyard.

His lawyers deny any meddling, and today they confirmed the personal records filed with the court have no links to Irving.

No Brison-Irving emails

"If you're looking for those documents, you're not going to find them because we found nothing," said his lawyer Peter Mantas. "We found nothing regarding Irving, and nothing with Irving in these records. Nothing."

Brison has been granted standing in the case.

The pre-trial hearing also heard from Patsy Bradley, who outlined the laborious process to identify and collect thousands of documents related to the case while protecting solicitor-client privilege and personal privacy.

She denied the suggestion that the use of codewords would serve to conceal relevant documents, insisting that the search terms were broad enough to capture the necessary documents.

Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel and an expert in access to information and military law, said even though a new search has been ordered, that doesn't get the defence department off the hook if there were deliberate attempts to suppress documents.

"Somebody who obstructs the right of access, either to deny the right of access, to destroy, mutilate records or falsify records, conceal records ... it's an offence," he said.

The federal information commissioner and military police are investigating.

Retired Colonel Michel Drapeau joined Power & Politics Wednesday to discuss the Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance's claim that the military didn't use codenames to suppress the release of documents related to criminal case against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman. 5:49

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