Archive for July, 2007
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.
Gen. Hillier is undermining democracy
The Ottawa Citizen
Mon 23 Jul 2007
Alexa McDonough MP
Re: Military tried to cover up file on outspoken critic, July 13.
The Harper Government appears to be using the Department of National Defence to fight two wars — one in Afghanistan, and another against concerned citizens who dare to raise questions.
Last week, Rick Hillier, the highest-ranking general in the Canadian Armed Forces, made a major policy decision, quite possibly in contravention of the Access to Information Act. The general appears determined that DND withhold information requested by the Canadian public, including elected officials, about matters relating to the handling of detainees in Afghanistan. Moreover, the Citizen has revealed that DND is monitoring and building a file on Steven Staples, a respected defence policy analyst, and critic of Canada’s war strategy in Afghanistan.
These decisions raise a major concern — does the Harper government consider us at war on two fronts, one with insurgents in Afghanistan, and another with Canadian citizens who dare to criticize the Kandahar mission?
Gen. Hillier, on behalf of the Conservative government, seems prepared to conceal the real face of the war in Afghanistan. Together they are afraid to let Canadians evaluate the government’s strategy, and the progress of the Kandahar mission, with the best information possible. They prefer to shield Canadians from the facts by denying access to information about, for example, the mishandling and possible torture of detainees in Afghan custody.
When informed Canadians, like the director of the Rideau Institute, question these and other distressing signs of a failing policy in Afghanistan, Gen. Hillier, with the apparent backing of Harper’s government, treats the matter as a threat from within. They gather and withhold information, and try to discredit critics’ opinions as if they represented a threat to the Canadian Forces and Canada’s security.
Gen. Rick Hillier is not a cabinet minister. He is not an elected official, yet he is determining what Canadians can and cannot know about the mission in Kandahar. This is not how democracy is supposed to work.
Where are the elected officials who should be accountable for these actions and what have we heard from them? From prime minister? From the minister of foreign affairs? From the minister of defence? Not a word! It makes one wonder: are they silent because they’ve directed the Chief of Defence Staff to compromise public access to information? Or are they silent because they remain willfully blind to Gen. Hillier’s undermining of civilian control over the military?
These are important questions for Canadians to ask of their elected officials. But you may not want to ask out loud. You may find yourself among the growing number of critics being monitored by the government. So much for Canada championing democracy in other parts of the world!
Alexa McDonough, Halifax
NDP critic for international affairs
MP for Halifax
Liberal Party Demands Resignation of Defence Minister and Renews Call for Access to Information Investigation
Liberal Party Demands Resignation of Defence Minister and Renews Call for Access to Information Investigation
July 17, 2007
MONTREAL – Prime Minister Stephen Harper must immediately replace Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor and must take immediate steps to restore the public’s access to information about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, said Liberal Defence Critic Denis Coderre today.
“Enough is enough. The Minister has been the source of misinformation and confusion for too long. To avoid further exposure of his complete incompetence, he has been choking off access to legitimate requests about Canada’s role in Afghanistan. He knows this is unacceptable and its time for him to go,” said Mr. Coderre.
“Whether it’s the cover up of the Department of Foreign Affairs report on torture in Afghanistan, or it’s a blanket order to ignore the Access to Information Act, this runs against every accountability and transparency promise made by the Prime Minister in the last election campaign. Minister O’Connor can no longer hide behind his generals and his civil servants to keep Canadians in the dark about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan.”
Mr. Coderre reiterated his request that the Information Commissioner intervene in this matter.
“Canada’s Information Commissioner should investigate why the information is being withheld. Political embarrassment and a desire to minimize political fallout over the Prime Minister’s refusal to unequivocally commit to Canadians to end the combat mission in February 2009 do not constitute legitimate national security reasons to bar the public’s access to the information,” he said.
“Now, with the Conservatives recognizing that their attitude towards our military mission in Afghanistan is increasingly out of sync with the Canadian public, the information suddenly stops flowing. It’s a coincidence that defies credulity,” added Mr. Coderre. “We must all wonder whether we can trust anything that this Conservative government says about the mission anymore.”
The Department of Defence claims that releasing information regarding the treatment of Afghan detainees would compromise national security, but they are now blocking the release of documents similar to those released under earlier requests made before Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor came under fire for his mishandling of this issue. And, while the Minister’s spokesperson claims that policies regarding Access to Information requests have not changed, officials from the Department of Defence have said that a new policy has been put in place to review all documents requested, including those that had been previously released, relating to the detainees file.
This is the second case of interference in Access to Information files within the Department of Defence. Last week, DND was forced to admit that it had files relating to defence analyst Steven Staples, following an investigation by the Information Commissioner. The Department had originally claimed those files could not be released because they did not exist.
“Canadians have a right to expect transparency and competence when it comes to the management of a war fought in their names, and that is why Minister O’Connor must be replaced immediately and why there is a definite public interest in an investigation by the Information Commissioner,” said Mr. Coderre. “We are an open and democratic country, and Canadians deserve to have all the facts they need to have an informed debate.”
Here is a column that appeared in the Edmonton Journalm, and later the Ottawa Citizen, by Journal columnist Sheila Pratt.
Sheila Pratt must have attended the presentation I delivered a year after the controversial Halifax speech that was secretly monitored by the Department of National Defence. In February 2007 I was in Edmonton at the University of Alberta on a panel with a military officer who had his own powerpoint presentation arguing why the public should support the military mission in Afganistan (it may have even included that photo of the Taliban executing a woman in a soccer stadium).
I recall thinking how unusual it was that a serving military officer was trying to sway public opinion on a policy issue, despite the fact that soldiers are prohibited from commenting on government policy (unless they have approval from the VERY TOP of the chain of command, I guess). - Steve
Afghan mission has changed
The Ottawa Citizen
Mon 23 Jul 2007
The Edmonton Journal
Last February, about 100 students and other citizens gathered in the Dinwoodie Lounge at the University of Alberta to hear a panel discussion of the role of Canada’s military. The Afghan mission was top of mind.
It seemed like an innocent episode of democracy in action. But maybe more was going on.
Capt. Peter Avis, a soldier with a degree in international relations, spoke for the Department of National Defence. Lauryn Oates, who has worked on women’s rights in Afghanistan since 1996, spoke about development work and efforts to build a civil society in Afghanistan to support women. Lastly, there was Steven Staples, an Ottawa-based defence analyst, and one of the early critics of the Afghan campaign — the guy the Canadian military doesn’t like and had been watching for a year, it turns out.
The Citizen revealed last week that the military monitored Staples’s speeches and appearances, compiled a report on his views and sent it out to 50 top officers. Initially, the defence department denied the existence of the report, but it came to light in the Citizen’s Access to Information request.
“Everyone engaged with communicating on Afghanistan should be made aware of (Staples’s) arguments so they can be better prepared to deal with them,” recommended the report on Staples sent to Lt.-Col. Jacques Poitras at national defence headquarters. So the U of A event, which seemed innocent enough, had another layer to it. Unbeknownst to the crowd, Staples was already a watched man.
An early critic of the Afghan campaign, Staples asked a lot of uncomfortable questions about whether the campaign could be successful. He told the Citizen he wasn’t surprised to find out the military was watching him.
But this doesn’t sit well with a lot of Canadians. The job of dealing with critics should fall to politicians, not the military. At worst, this might intimidate other critics. It will certainly lead people to wonder who else the military has in its sights.
The defence department says it’s just doing its job. “Our job is to make sure we are aware of the information that is floating in the public domain,” said an army spokesperson. At least it was only using public information, we assume.
The revelation about Staples comes just a few days after Canada’s top soldier, Gen. Rick Hillier, took another troubling step. He clamped down on information available to the public through Access to Information requests about the treatment of detainees handed over to the Afghan authorities. Hillier explains the need to withhold information previously released on detainees in order to protect our soldiers.
No one wants operational details that will endanger soldiers’ lives. But there’s a lot of room in between for public information. If we’re fighting for democracy and human rights in Afghanistan, the military shouldn’t quash the transparency and accountability citizens in this country deserve.
It was an Access to Information request that revealed problems in Canada’s system of monitoring the detainees. Without that knowledge, Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor wouldn’t have been forced to make some improvements in that system.
Most Canadians, including this one, agree we must stay in the dangerous combat role to the end of 2009. We can’t break that NATO commitment. But trying to follow Harper on where he’s going after 2009 is like being his dance partner and wearing a blindfold. You’re never quite sure where he’s leading, and he won’t discuss what music is coming next.
A few weeks ago, Harper said he could not extend the combat mission without the support of the Opposition parties. While flipping pancakes in Calgary, he repeated that stand and hinted he was looking at opposition support for a new mission after 2009. What new mission?
“Canadians have been fairly clear that if we were to be in after 2009, that they would expect our participation to evolve …” Harper said. To what? And most important, for how long?
Andy Knight, University of Alberta professor, says Canadians have never had a proper and open debate on the mission from the day the Liberal government committed troops after the 9/11 terror attacks.
The Liberals committed Canada to a UN-approved campaign carried out by NATO, to go after al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It morphed into establishing a democracy in the war-torn country. The fighting has changed, suicide missions previously unheard of in Afghanistan are now taking our soldiers’ lives, development goals are in the back seat and extremists in Pakistan are a huge problem, Knight says.
“Once it becomes a war on terror, it becomes unwinnable by military means,” says Knight. (Is the Defence Department taking notes on this?)
“We need to rethink the mission.”
This time, the Canadian public should have a full and open debate. Harper should be clear about the benchmarks for success and how long it will take to get there.
Sheila Pratt writes for the Edmonton Journal.
DND has been running its own spin operation to try to limit the impact of the Ottawa Citizen story, and later Lawrence Martin’s column. This letter appeared in the Globe and Mail. – SteveNo monitoring here
The Globe and Mail
Mon 23 Jul 2007
Letter To The Editor
Lieutenant-Colonel, Department of National Defence
Re Lawrence Martin’s Too Often, Access Is Denied To Hide Wrongdoing (July 19): The Department of National Defence does not “monitor” individuals. The “report” referring to Steven Staples was an e-mailed speech summary and personal observations of follow-on discussions on a topic titled The Americanization of the Canadian Military.
At no time did DND deny the Access to Information request as cited in the original Ottawa Citizen story, nor did DND try to cover anything up. The request was for documents or e-mails written between Jan. 15-30, 2006, on speeches by civilians in Halifax. The e-mail cited in the Citizen story was written after those dates. As publicly stated by the deputy minister of National Defence, the department follows the Access to Information Act diligently.
Operational security checks are done on documents that may have the potential to compromise the security of our troops. Such information is legally severed in accordance with the ATI Act, and these severances can be – and often are – challenged. The department handled 1,808 individual ATI requests last year, resulting in 153,103 pages of released information. Some 93.3 per cent of the requests – which require thousands of hours of research – were completed on time.
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
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.
Back in January 2006, I was invited by the Halifax Peace Coalition to go down to Halifax to give a few lectures, talk to the media, and generally promote the good work of the group and further its cause.
One of the presentations they had arranged was co-sponsored by Dalhousie University’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, and it was held on campus during the afternoon of January 26th, 2007.
I spoke to a full house with many academics, students, and the general public in the audience - including more than a few people in military uniforms. Even local NDP Member of Parliament Peter Stoffer was there.
My topic was “The Americanization of the Canadian Forces” and it was based on research that we had been producing on the rapid increase in Canada’s military spending, our abandonment of UNpeacekeeping, the war in Afghanistan (back then troops were just taking up position in Kandahar under the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom), and the alarming direction that both General Hillier and the new Harper Conservatives were steering our defence policy.
Here is a photo taken during the presentation that appeared in the Halifax Daily News , and here is a copy of my Halifax presentation on the Americanization of the Canadian Forces (Powerpoint, 4Mb) that the military was so interested in hearing.
On the morning of July 13, 2007, people in Ottawa were confronted by this front page story in the Ottawa Citizen – Steve
Military tried to cover up file on outspoken critic
Forces’ report deemed Ottawa man not a threat
Friday, July 13, 2007
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
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