Ottawa Citizen: Military tried to cover up file on outspoken critic

On the morning of July 13, 2007, people in Ottawa were confronted by this front page story in the Ottawa Citizen – Steve

Staples_citizencover

Military tried to cover up file on outspoken critic

Forces’ report deemed Ottawa man not a threat

Friday, July 13, 2007

Staples_Citizen cover
The Forces initially denied it had documents relating to analyst Steven Staples, but an investigation revealed they had compiled a report on him and circulated it to officers.
CREDIT: Bruno Schlumberger, The Ottawa Citizen

David Pugliese
The Ottawa Citizen

Military officials kept an eye on an outspoken opponent of the Afghanistan war last year, but in a report produced about the Ottawa man’s public comments they determined support for the mission was still high and his criticism does “not seem to resonate” with the public and media.

Defence department officials originally denied the documents, requested by the Citizen under the access to information law, even existed. But an investigation by the information commissioner revealed that e-mails and a report on the activities of left-wing defence analyst Steven Staples had indeed been compiled by the military. The report was sent to 50 officers, including two brigadier generals.

The release comes as the Defence Department finds itself dealing with charges from critics that Gen. Rick Hillier has ordered a sweeping crackdown to block the release of all files on the Afghanistan mission requested under the access to information law.

Defence officials have denied that is the case and Ward Elcock, the department’s deputy minister, issued a statement pointing out that the organization understands the importance of providing information to the public.

The military report on Mr. Staples, of the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute on International Affairs, details his speech to a Halifax peace group last year and his views on Afghanistan and Gen. Hillier’s plans to move the military away from peacekeeping and into more combat-oriented roles. It stated that Mr. Staples’s presentation did not seem to resonate with those attending the speech, but pointed out that he was expected to give other talks across the country.

It recommended the military be prepared to counter Mr. Staples’s arguments.

“Everyone engaged with communicating on Afghanistan should be made aware of his arguments so that they can be better prepared to deal with them,” recommended the report to Lt.-Col. Jacques Poitras at National Defence headquarters.

In an interview, Mr. Staples said the military had overstepped its bounds, but he is not surprised by such actions. “This is what happens when you have a different viewpoint on Afghanistan than the government and the generals,” he said.

Mr. Staples said it is not the military’s role to sell the mission and challenge those who don’t agree with it. That is the job of elected officials, he added.

But army spokesman Lt.-Col. Chris Lemay said officers were simply doing their job. “It was fair game to know what was out there,” he said. “Our job is to make sure we are aware of the information that is floating in the public domain.”

Lt.-Col. Lemay said he was not aware if the military followed up on the recommendation to prepare to counter Mr. Staples’s arguments.

But Mr. Staples, who has criticized the war on TV and in print articles, said such activities set a dangerous precedent. “I don’t hide what I have to say, but I wonder what type of message this sends to others who might want to speak out publicly,” he said.

“Does this mean if you don’t agree with the war and say so in a public forum the government or military begins compiling a file on you?”

But Lt.-Col. Lemay said there is no regular program to monitor analysts who discuss defence issue and during that period on the East Coast, only Mr. Staples’s presentation was attended by an officer. At the time, East Coast military personnel were getting ready for a mission to Afghanistan, he added.

Defence officials, however, were not keen for the public to know that such documents existed. They at first claimed no such records had been kept, but since the Citizen filed its complaint with the information commissioner, the department has been required to release 19 pages of documents dealing with Mr. Staples. Those records only covered a 15-day period last year and consisted of e-mails, the report and details on the media coverage of Mr. Staples’s views.

Lt.-Col. Lemay did not have any information why military officials at first denied the records existed. Privately, officers have told the Citizen that since Canadian troops are at war, Mr. Staples’s criticisms are not welcome or helpful.

This week has seen other questions raised about the military’s policy of openness and transparency. Critics, including Liberal MP Denis Coderre, have taken the Defence Department to task for its recent creation of the Strategic Joint Staff, a group designed to further review records released under the access to information law.

Media reports this week pointed out that all files requested under the access law related to Afghanistan, including details about the potential abuse of prisoners, are now being withheld on Gen. Hillier’s orders.

The access legislation allows Canadians to request government records by paying a $5 fee per request. Since the government has several dozen reasons it can employ to censor material, users of the law note few real sensitive pieces of information are ever released.

On Wednesday, Mr. Elcock said the Strategic Joint Staff is reviewing material in requested records, with the ultimate aim of protecting Canadian troops in the field.

Military spokesman Lt.-Col. Jamie Robertson said no reports are being withheld. He said the review is only for records that have potential operational security implications and the process follows the provisions of the access law.

But a source disputed that claim. The joint staff has ordered that even previously released files be reviewed before they can be released again to the public. Files subject to another round of reviews range from records about veterans exposed to nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s to a file on a 1995 court martial in British Columbia.

Mr. Elcock’s statement also did not deal with his department’s ongoing efforts to withhold other previously released public information. His department is still declining to release information on the cost of running various pieces of military machinery, including the Challenger jets used by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet. That information had been available up until 2005.

Such records were requested by the Citizen more than a year ago. The newspaper has filed a complaint with the information commissioner to investigate the decision to withhold such data.

The Citizen has also filed a complaint on the Defence Department’s decision last year to censor from current records the countries where the famed Devil’s Brigade fought during the Second World War. The department censored that information on the grounds it could violate national security.

Last year, in an examination of 23 access requests made to the department over an 18-month period, the Citizen found 87 pieces of information, now censored, which had been previously released to the public or are still on government and Defence department websites.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2007

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