'Alarmed' and 'disgusted': Vance erupts over report that DND evaded information requests on Mark Norman

The country’s top military commander is denying any knowledge of defence officials intentionally trying to subvert the federal access to information system by avoiding the use of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman's name in internal correspondence.

'I cannot say enough about how bad this is, if it’s true,' says CDS

Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance. The CDS is promising a thorough investigation of a report that officials in National Defence have been skirting access to information requests regarding Mark Norman. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The country's top military commander is denying any knowledge of defence officials intentionally trying to subvert the federal access to information system by avoiding the use of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman's name in internal correspondence.

In a year-end interview with CBC News, Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance described recent testimony in the criminal case against his former deputy as "extremely serious" and alarming.

A pretrial hearing this week in the breach of trust case against Norman, the former vice-chief of the defence staff, heard testimony from a military member who handles access to information requests.

The individual, whose name is protected by a publication ban, told the court that in July 2017 he approached his commander asking for help with an access-to-information request for internal documents about Norman.

His commander, he said, smiled and said there were no records because "this isn't our first rodeo" and officials were being careful to avoid using the vice-admiral's name in memos, email and briefings. That would mean any search for records about Norman would come up empty.

If that's true, Vance said, it could be a breach of access-to-information law and a "reputational hit" for National Defence, which faced outrage in the 1990s when it released altered documents under the act in reference to the Somalia scandal.

'We don't use codenames'

"I'm alarmed and somewhat disgusted by this, if it's true," Vance said in the interview. "I cannot say enough about how bad this is, if it's true."

Defence lawyer Marie Henein told the court that if Norman was referred to by a "codename" within National Defence, it would make it very easy to bury the records.

Vance denied that suggestion.

"We don't hide names. We don't use codenames," he said.

"If it was done, if it has been done, it's wrong, dead wrong and we'll stop it."

Often, senior members of the military do refer to each other using the acronyms of their job titles — 'CDS' for chief of the defence staff, for example.

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman listens as his lawyer Marie Henein speaks to reporters as they leave the courthouse in Ottawa following his first appearance for his trial for breach of trust, on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Vance vowed an investigation and, if the allegations are corroborated, to hold those responsible to account. He said it is paramount to cooperate with both the defence and prosecution in the case.

There will also be measures to remind everybody at National Defence "about the importance of the act and how it works, and why it works," Vance said.

Norman is charged with a single count of breach of trust and is accused of leaking cabinet secrets involving a $668 million deal to lease a supply ship for the navy.

His lawyers spent five days in court recently arguing for access to federal government documents, including secret cabinet memos, related to the project at the Davie shipyard in Levis, Que.

The defence has alleged the government is dragging its feet and even hiding documents, and cherry-picking the information it does release.

Norman's lawyers also claim the Crown has been hindering its access to witnesses.

An expert in military law and access-to-information law said it's entirely possible Vance did not know about the alleged suppression of Norman's name, but suspects it could turn out to be a case of "willful blindness."

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau used the information legislation extensively during the Somalia affair — a cover-up involving the torture and murder of a teenager during an ill-fated peacekeeping mission.

He said National Defence is artful and skilled at keeping sensitive, potentially embarrassing issues from being committed to paper — despite having instituted reforms after getting caught releasing altered documents during the 1990s scandal.

'Give me a break'

Officials use sticky notes, or brief each other verbally, said Drapeau.

"It comes across that the CDS is scandalized by it. Well, give me a break," he said. "It doesn't correspond with my experience and doesn't correspond with my knowledge of how DND operates."

Drapeau also took issue with the notion that the defence department needs to remind its people of their duty when it comes to the handling of information requests.

It is, he said, a matter of leadership and culture — not process.

"It's not an issue that the Act doesn't work, or the people running the Act don't know their jobs ... This case is not the first. It's not the exception. It's the norm."

Norman's lawyers intend to subpoena Vance, former Defence deputy minister John Forester and the brigadier general who was in charge of access-to-information during the relevant period.

Another pre-trial hearing in Norman's case will take place at the end of January.


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.