OTTAWA – The “secret” documents that cost Maxime Bernier his cabinet post last year have been released, but heavily censored to safeguard sensitive security information.
The 560 pages, much of it redacted by Access to Information Act censors under an exemption to protect national security, would seem to contradict past government assurances that the material was mostly routine background information.
Bernier left the documents at the home of his former Montreal girlfriend, and was relieved of his duties as foreign affairs minister after the lapse was made public.
At the time, the Conservatives played down the significance of the information.
House Leader Peter Van Loan told Parliament the material was a “mix of publicly available documents, as well as some classified documents.”
And Margaret Bloodworth, then Harper’s national security adviser, told a House of Commons committee the documents were secret but, on preliminary review, not particularly sensitive.
Montreal’s Le Devoir newspaper, after examining the blacked-out pages, described them in a report Thursday as “a mine of crucial information for the enemy.”
But Bernier dismissed the newspaper report as pure conjecture – “derogatory and sensationalist.”
And Harper, speaking to reporters in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., said it was old news.
“That has been over for more than a year now, that whole situation, and I have no comment to add at this time,” said the prime minister.
The briefing documents, also obtained by The Canadian Press, have been censored using six different exemptions in the Access to Information Act.
The most frequently cited fall under Section 15, which relates to information that “could reasonably be expected to be injurious to the conduct of international affairs, the defence of Canada or any allied state … or the detection, prevention or suppression of subversive or hostile activities.”
Liberal MP Bob Rae likened the situation to a Monty Python farce.
“The government can’t have it both ways,” said Rae.
“You can’t say on the one hand there was nothing sensitive or important in these documents, and then say, ‘but you can’t see them because they’re too sensitive.”‘
The Conservative government, which came to power in 2006 promising to open up the access-to-information system, has been sharply criticized for moving in the opposite direction.
Some of the blacked out sections in the Bernier papers appear to defy logic.
References to Canada’s well-known position on the seal hunt, for instance, are entirely removed. So is much of the information on Canada’s position on climate change. So are parts of the routine biography of Condoleeza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state.
But unredacted subheadings among the papers strongly suggest some of the material may indeed have been sensitive in the wrong hands.
NATO’s relationship with a “resurgent Russia,” expansion to the Balkans, Afghan prisoners, arms control in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, AECL reactors in Estonia and the presence of Al-Qaida in Pakistan are just some of the sensitive subjects addressed.
A government report on Bernier’s blunder concluded the unauthorized breach “would not have caused significant injury to the national interest.”
But it also found the incident had tarnished Canada’s reputation among its allies for safeguarding classified information.