DND tells staff to withhold even non-sensitive information

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David Pugliese – September 20, 2012

A Citizen article about the Defence Department’s handling of tax dollars has prompted a crackdown on the type of information DND and the Canadian Forces releases to the public, according to newly released documents.

The April 11, 2011 article came in the middle of the federal election campaign. It caused embarrassment to the department and the Conservative government and prompted an unsuccessful hunt for the source of the documents, military officials privately acknowledge.

The Citizen article outlined how DND would have to return more than $1.5 billion of its $21 billion budget to government coffers because it couldn’t spend it. Much of the money was for equipment projects the Conservative government had promised.

The documents from a senior DND management board and leaked to the newspaper, noted more financial problems were expected in the future.

In response, Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, the vice chief of defence staff, issued a directive, known as a CANFORGEN, instructing those handling information to give everything that passes over their desks — or posted on the internal department system — a second glance with an eye to keeping it hidden, according to newly released records.

“Information that is not sensitive to the national interest, and therefore not classified, should also be examined to see if it is sensitive to other than the national interest, and therefore requires an appropriate designation of either Protected A, B, or C,” said the directive, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The directive goes beyond reviewing information to protect privacy.

“Sensitivity to other than the national interest is not limited to information that is personally sensitive, but also includes, for example, information that is sensitive to the organization, administration, finances or other internal functioning of the department, its relationship to outside organizations, or other government business operations.”

Members of opposition parties suggested the Canadian Forces directive is more about protecting the Conservative government from embarrassment rather than safeguarding sensitive information.

“This isn’t about security; it’s about bowing to pressure from the government,” said Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, the former chairman of the senate defence committee. “For them to want everything classified seems beyond the pale.”

New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris has asked the information commissioner to investigate to determine whether the directive has violated the country’s Access to Information law.

“This is a department that spends 20 billion of taxpayer dollars annually and in terms of the documents available to the public, they seem to be seeking the highest degree of secrecy based on vague notions,” said Harris.

“It’s contrary to the public interest and contrary to the principles of accountability that this government claims to hold dear.”

DND stated in an email to the Citizen Thursday night that the directive was issued on Dec. 11, 2011 and “CANFORGENS are considered orders for all CF members and directives for all civilian employees, and are considered departmental policy.”

The directive “serves as a reminder to all CF members and DND employees of their obligations regarding the classification, designation, safeguarding, access to, and release of information,” the email noted.

DND also pointed out that it “is committed to safeguarding sensitive information, and to the safety of its people, assets and infrastructure.”

But the documents obtained by the Citizen were not classified secret nor marked sensitive.

But they came at a time when concerns about poor management practices at DND and a lack of procurement staff to oversee the billions of dollars in proposed equipment purchases was seen as being behind DND’s inability to spend all of its budget.

Donaldson’s directive is in addition to the ongoing strict policy at DND and in the Canadian Forces on providing information to the news media. Most responses are in the form of emails that are required to be approved by senior Conservative officials in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Several months ago the Canadian Naval Review published by Dalhousie University reported that the Defence Department’s Strategic Investment Plan, previously made public by the Liberal government, is now considered “a classified document” and cannot be issued to the public. In April, DND informed the publication of the government’s new policy.

The investment document outlines a 15-year plan for equipment projects, their budgets and delivery schedules.

In other cases, department officials have kept information out of the public domain for fear the data could cause problems for the Conservatives. For instance, Access to Information documents obtained last year by the Citizen revealed that senior Defence Department officials kept the $600 million price tag for renovating the former Nortel campus under wraps, worried the public, media and parliamentarians might raise concerns about the bill if they found out about the real cost.

DND expects to eventually move most of its offices in Ottawa and Gatineau to the former Nortel site.

Original article on Ottawa Citizen website