DND critic wants answers on defence surveillance
CanWest News Service
Thursday, July 26, 2007
OTTAWA — An analyst who has spoken out against the Afghanistan war as well as criticized Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier is demanding an explanation from Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor about why officers kept tabs on him and made plans to counter his views of the mission in public.
At least one defence document detailing a speech by left-wing analyst Steve Staples last year was e-mailed to 50 officers including two brigadier generals.
The document points out Staples has “his own agenda” and he will appear at other venues across the country.
The military should be aware of what he is saying so they can be better prepared to counter his arguments, according to the e-mail.
But Staples argues it’s not the job of the military to track his views and come up with counter-arguments. He is writing O’Connor for an explanation on what is going on and whether such efforts are continuing.
“I want some kind of accounting from O’Connor of why this is happening and why they tried to hide it in the first place,” said Staples, director of the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute on International Affairs. “Why am I being monitored and does the minister’s office condone this?”
But O’Connor’s office says it has no information on the issue.
Defence spokesman Lt.-Col. Jamie Robertson, however, categorically denied Staples is being monitored.
He said military officials don’t get involved in politics, but the department’s public affairs office has the job to determine what is being said in the public domain.
“If there’s misinformation in what’s being said, our job is to inform Canadians [of what] the mission to Afghanistan consists of,” Robertson said.
After being tipped off that a military officer had attended Staples’ Jan. 26, 2006, presentation in Halifax, the Ottawa Citizen requested under the Access to Information law all documents discussing public speeches in the city for a period Jan. 15 to Jan. 30, 2006.
Department officials claimed they did “a thorough and complete search” and no such records could be found. A source, however, forwarded copies of military documents discussing Staples and other speeches to be given in Halifax.
Those records had been inadvertently left behind at Staples speech by the officer assigned to attend the function and write up a report on the analyst’s views.
It was only after the Citizen turned those records over to the Information Commissioner for an investigation did the defence department acknowledge that records existed.
It took almost a year for the department to release the documents.
But Robertson emphasized there was no attempt to hide any of the records.
“The implication that people are sitting on stuff and trying to mislead is not accurate,” he said.
Robertson pointed out the department released a key e-mail regarding Staples even though it was technically outside the scope of the Citizen’s access request.
That e-mail, a 1,000-word document detailing Staples views and the recommendation on what should be done about them, was dated Jan. 31, 2006.
The Citizen had requested records up to Jan. 30.
Lawyer and access-to-information specialist Michel Drapeau said what happened to Staples is not right.
“Is there something illegal here? Not really, but it’s the impropriety of having an officer on the public payroll doing fundamentally what could be seen by some as a surveillance operation,” said Drapeau, a retired colonel and author of a law book on the access to information act.
“It’s something that doesn’t seem right for an officer to do.”
He said there has been other incidents in which the department has claimed records don’t exist, only to have them turn up when investigators from the information commissioner are called in. That, Drapeau said, should make people suspicious about what is happening with the documents.
The defence records on Staples has opened the debate about to what extent Canadians can publicly challenge the military and government about the conduct of the Afghan war. Some military officers have privately told the Citizen that Staples should not be allowed to raise dissenting views at a time of war. One former soldier is now circulating an e-mail that labels Staples as a traitor.
Staples has questioned what he sees is a move by Hillier to push the military away from peacekeeping and into more combat-oriented roles.