Globe and Mail: Bring on the wiretappers

Globe and Mail national affairs columnist Lawrence Martin penned this column following the revelations that DND had me under surveillance and tried to hide it. – Steve

Too often, access is denied to hide wrongdoing

The Globe and Mail
19 July 2007
Lawrence Martin

Under what might be called the incarceration of information, as opposed to the freedom of it, two remarkable examples made it to the forefront last week. News from the trial of Conrad Black overshadowed them. But they shouldn’t be forgotten.

One was the revelation that our Department of National Defence monitored Steven Staples, head of the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute, because he opposed the war in Afghanistan. A report was produced on his activities, including a speech to a Halifax peace group. The report was sent to 50 officers, including two brigadier-generals. Confronted with the allegation, DND officials tried to cover it up. They initially denied the activity.

The second example featured General Rick Hillier, our top soldier. He halted the release of documents related to detainees captured in Afghanistan. The detainee story caused the government and Gen. Hillier’s department many embarrassing moments in the spring. So, basically, they decided, as per the detainee file, to ignore access-to-information laws. They are invoking that old standby, “reasons of national security,” to get around them.

The generals, it seems, are becoming increasingly aggravated by the democratic process and the freedoms therein.

Take, for instance, this Staples fellow. What a menace he is. His group works on behalf of the poor, on behalf of curtailing the nuclear weapons buildup, on behalf of peace. Whew! With that kind of track record, no wonder he’s in trouble.

But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to Afghanistan, Mr. Staples was also a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq and things such as missile defence. Need any more be said? Bring on the wiretappers.

Actually, we don’t know how much snooping DND did on him. The records that were finally released, after the Ottawa Citizen filed a complaint with the country’s Information Commissioner, covered only a 15-day period last year. It’s reasonable to assume that there was more surveillance and that DND is monitoring many others among the half of the Canadian population opposing the war in Afghanistan. The department is well-positioned to know who’s who – its deputy minister, Ward Elcock, used to be the head of CSIS.

On the prisoner detainee file, no one should be surprised at the clampdown. Canadians who are sending their kids off to war will not even be told how many prisoners are being taken over there. The file simply got too hot.

In the spring, a parliamentary committee heard allegations that the Department of Foreign Affairs engaged in a cover-up to prevent the release of a scathing report on the detainees’ treatment in Afghan jails. The full story has yet to emerge, and it likely never will.

Lest anyone think the media have been overly harsh, it needs to be noted that they are not the only ones alleging the incarceration of information. In May, Robert Marleau, the new federal Information Commissioner, issued a report. Mr. Marleau was said to be a more lenient fellow than his predecessor, John Reid, who had repudiated the government’s performance. But Mr. Marleau couldn’t find a way to sugar-coat what was going on.

He looked, for example, at the performance of the Privy Council Office. On the bureaucratic ladder, you can’t get any higher than this club, which is the arm of the Prime Minister’s Office. He found its compliance with access regulations to be dismal. “Too often, access is denied to hide wrongdoing,” Mr. Marleau said, “or to protect officials or governments from embarrassment, rather than to serve a legitimate confidentiality requirement.”

The government, it need be recalled, promised a new era of transparency and accountability. After Liberal malfeasance, it was elected, in at least some measure, for this very reason.

Some might wish to remind the generals and others of the pledge. And they need to be reminded more than once. In many cases, what happens is that officials wait for the media blow-over effect. They realize that, after a couple of days, journalists will move on to other fare. Stories such as Steven Staples being put under surveillance will be forgotten, and they will be off the hook.

The media’s memory has to be longer. They can’t allow it to happen.

lmartin@globeandmail.com

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