Ottawa Citizen | 18Sep2005 | Chris Cobb

Cotler delays plan for PS secrecy oaths

Minister wants time to study newspapers' objections to more lifelong gag orders

The Martin government has delayed plans to bind more public servants to permanent secrecy, the Citizen has learned.

The planned amendment to the controversial Security of Information Act was temporarily shelved by federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler because, according to a department spokesman, his officials need more time to study a three-page memo sent last April by the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association, which objects to the change.

The amendment would oblige the public servants to take an oath of secrecy not only while employed by the federal public service but for the rest of their lives -- a move critics say is unneccesary and excessive.

The Justice Department first revealed the plan in the March 12 edition of Canada Gazette, the newspaper of the federal government. For 30 days afterwards, the government invited interested parties to send comments about the proposal, but only one was received during the consultation period.

A Justice spokesman said the department is still studying the comments received during the consultation period. He confirmed, after being reminded by the Citizen, that only one submission had been received.

Gagging public servants for a lifetime is "draconian and overreaching" and part of the federal government's "growing agenda of secrecy," said David Gollob, the newspaper association's vice-president of public affairs.

"After the Vietnam War there were people involved in secret operations who were able to talk about the mistakes that were made and why U.S. laws were broken," said Mr. Gollob. "It's important for any country that these mistakes come to light. Why would we allow our federal government to retroactively silence individuals for their lifetimes, without review, without appeal and without any public discussion?"

The newspaper association wants any changes to be discussed openly and with public involvement.

"It is something that must be determined in a public forum and not by bureaucrats operating in secret," added Mr. Gollob.

According to the Justice department's notice in Canada Gazette, the change is needed to make Canada's security laws more effective.

"Maintaining the status quo is not desirable in this case," said the notice. "The 14 entities ... were carefully selected and great care has been taken to ensure that they have or had a mandate that is primarily related to security or intelligence matters. National security interests require that the former or current members or employees of those 14 entities are permanently bound to secrecy in order to strengthen the security and intelligence community's ability to ensure secrecy and protect information entrusted to them."

Insiders say that Mr. Cotler ordered the postponement following a Citizen story last week about a Department of Justice document prepared for the all-party House of Commons sub-committee on Public Safety and National Security.

The document listed a range of alternatives that could create a new category of criminal offences and, if implemented, would severely weaken the public's right to access government information.

Section 4 of the act, which the sub-committee will examine when it meets on Tuesday, is one of the most contentious laws in a package of security legislation passed in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

The section deals with "wrongful communication, use, reception, retention and failure to take reasonable care of certain government information." The official purpose of the section is to protect "the safety or interest of the State."

The 14 federal entities the government planned to bring under the secrecy umbrella are all little-known intelligence or security units of government:

- Canadian Forces Crypto Support Unit of the Department of National Defence.

- Canadian Forces Information Operations Group of the Department of National Defence, excluding the Canadian Forces Information Operations Group -- Headquarters Electronic Warfare Detachment, the Canadian Forces Network Operations Centre, the Canadian Forces Station Alert and the National Call Attendant Service.

- Canadian Security Intelligence Service Legal Services Unit -- Department of Justice.

- Communications Security Establishment Legal Services Unit -- Department of Justice.

- Deputy Commander, North American Aerospace Defence Command.

- Directorate of Information Management Security of the Department of National Defence.

- Foreign and Defence Policy Secretariat, Privy Council Office.

- Intelligence Assessment Secretariat of the Privy Council Office.

- J2 Director General of Intelligence of the Department of National Defence.

- National Security Directorate of the Department of the Solicitor General.

- National Security Group of the Department of Justice.

- Office of the National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister.

- Office of the Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator of the Privy Council Office.

- Security and Intelligence Secretariat of the Privy Council Office.

Two of the 14 -- Office of the Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator of the Privy Council Office and the National Security Directorate of the Department of the Solicitor General -- no longer exist.

But, says the Justice department, "it is still necessary to ... permanently bind to secrecy the employees that worked there in the past since they had a privileged access to special operational information."

The Ottawa Citizen 2005