Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The muzzle tightens

This should disturb a few people. In fact, it should disturb everyone.
Important information and interview requests directed to the Canadian military must now be cleared by senior bureaucrats who are under the direction of the prime minister's office, say defence sources.

The Privy Council Office directive applies to all matters of ``national importance," but is primarily focused on shaping information related to the war in Afghanistan.

The order was issued within the last two weeks and caps a determined effort by the Conservatives to assert more civilian control over the military, which has been seen in government circles to have too much influence in the conduct of the war.

There is lots of blame to go around for this but much of it must rest with General Rick Hillier for being too vocal and having been seen to be far too public a figure. No Chief of Defence Staff has ever been so much in the media as Hillier.

Notwithstanding that, however, there is something terribly wrong with information being crimped directly from the PMO.

"They want to turn the noise down," said one defence source.

A second official added that the military side was in the ``information business" while the political side was "in the marketing business."

Requests for comment from the Prime Minister's Office and Defence Minister Peter MacKay's office were not answered Monday.

A call to interview senior public affairs officers at the Defence Department was denied, but officials did release a two-line email suggesting the military has long "co-ordinated (communications) with both the minister's office and the Privy Council Office."

That's all true but only in degrees. The Canadian Forces public information system is intended to provide continuous updates on activities of the Canadian Forces on a day to day basis. Generally there is no discussion of policy. That is the purview of the government. While there has always been coordination between the minister's office and the PCO, it has always been on an information basis. Censorship has only been imposed when a matter of national security was involved and it was normally the CF telling the PCO what constituted national security.

Regulations governing members of the Canadian Forces when they speak with the media were enacted in 1998.

"There has been no change in policy," said the note.

But clamping down on information and interview requests wouldn't require a formal change in policy, only a political order.

Actually regulations have always existed. They have been and are vague enough to allow the politicians to establish any level of information filtering they wish. In this case, the filter is actually starting to look like a dam.

A retired colonel and expert in access-to-information said the military, the group that has been most effective in rallying support for Afghanistan and explaining the mission to Canadians, has been gagged.

"People should absolutely be concerned because these are our sons and daughters serving in Afghanistan," said Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and defence commentator.

"It leaves one with the impression of some sort of political manipulation or lack of transparency, where transparency should be absolutely necessary."

To expect an explanation of the mission from the Harperites would be a stretch of enormous proportions. In fact, because the politicians are in the "marketing" game, actual information will be left behind.

It is unclear how far along the chain of command the order extends and how much freedom the country's outspoken chief of defence staff, Gen. Rick Hillier, has been given. He has raised the ire of Conservatives for his blunt public statements, which have sometimes contradicted his political masters.
No, no, no. That's not the actual truth. As long as Hillier was saying things which made the Conservatives look like tough-talking macho-men in business suits, Harper was quite happy to let Hillier run-off at the mouth. It wasn't until Hillier gave an honest assessment of how long it would actually take to have the Afghan National Army prepared to take over operations that the Conservatives went all wobbly.

Last summer, the military stopped releasing documents under access to information regarding Taliban prisoners. At the same, it has subjected almost all requests to an extra review process – over and above existing checks – in the name of national security, even if they don't relate to Afghanistan.

Over the last few months, routine information and interview requests by various media have either been answered by short, often non-sequitor e-mail responses or by silence.

All of which coincides with the arrival of Peter MacKay as Minister of National Defence. And weepy Peter watched what happened to his predecessor when the better informed of two principles - the minister and the CDS - was the CDS.

There is more to this than just Afghanistan. Given the Conservative moping over the fact that despite the tons of money they've poured into the Canadian Forces for equipment, some of which was not and is not wanted, the politicians have not reaped the reward of political "sizzle", there is an expectation that the taps are about to be turned off.

There have already been reports that the Harperites have told the Canadian Forces that the mission to Afghanistan will have to be covered from the fixed DND budget. There will be no further funding made available despite the fact that Afghanistan is not the kind of operation that would typically be funded out of annual estimates.

What will happen is that normal operations such as sovereignty patrols and training will take a hit. All three services will suffer at the expense of an Afghanistan mission that grows in cost.

There will be dissension and the Conservatives will need to work hard to quell it or keep a lid on the information. What the Conservatives have not managed to get their political heads around however, is that the Canadian Forces is a fairly close-knit organization. Despite minor internal rivalries, the culture is unique and insular. The impression of being "hosed" by politicians spreads quickly.

While the prime minister's office may be able to clamp down on official information and the senior officer corps of the CF, they can't stop the internal rumour-mill from operating. And if the official information dries up you can expect to hear information coming from the corporals and leading seamen... via a very reliable grapevine.

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