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Defence Department flouting information policy, Globe finds


From Saturday's Globe and Mail

The Defence Department has been ignoring federal access to information policy in an attempt to avoid releasing large chunks of material related to individuals detained during Canada's Afghanistan mission.

Last year, The Globe and Mail submitted several requests under the access to information law for material sent by the Department of National Defence regarding detainees captured by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan during 2006.

The department responded in May that almost all such documents could not be released because they constituted cabinet confidences, a special designation that means requested material is outside the access act.

Most of the pages released to The Globe were virtually blank, even though they were routine e-mails between defence and foreign affairs officials.

Long-standing Treasury Board policy requires any department to obtain approval from the Privy Council Office before invoking the cabinet-confidence provision to withhold information. The Globe complained to Robert Marleau, the Information Commissioner. According to an investigation report sent to The Globe, “PCO was not consulted by National Defence.”

Only after intervention by the Information Commissioner did the department process the material correctly. PCO reviewed the records and confirmed they did not constitute cabinet confidences.

National Defence was then obliged to release additional information last month concerning the processing of detainees prior to the new agreement Canada negotiated with the Afghanistan government in May, 2007, regarding detainees.

The released documents remain heavily censored, however, because the Information Commissioner agreed with the Defence Department that the remaining information withheld properly qualifies as operational security material which, if released, “could reasonably be expected to be injurious to the defence of Canada or its allies.”

This attempt at an end run around the Access to Information Act is the latest in a series of measures and tactics by the Defence Department to quash the release of any information concerning detainees since The Globe reported last January that some may have been abused by Canadian soldiers in April, 2006.

Beginning March 12, all access requests for detainee and other Afghan-related documents sent to the military will have to be sent through General Rick Hillier's office, known as the Strategic Joint Staff. The Globe reported recently that the SJS also unleashed a so-called tiger team of officers in March to scrutinize requests and hunt down material that had been previously released to ensure it wasn't released a second time.

A document recently obtained from the Department of Justice that was prepared for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson for Question Period contains a section titled Classified Detainee Information and suggests points he should make if asked about the issue.

Suggestions include:

- We don't want the Taliban to know how successful we have been on operations. This could be a threat to the security of our soldiers.

- This information is also classified to protect the identity of the detainees. If detainees give us information, this could place them in danger of retribution.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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