DND again denies first, discloses later

This morning’s interesting Globe and Mail story on a secret military project called Polar Breeze catches my attention for reasons that have nothing to do with shadowy plans for high-tech surveillance in the high Arctic.

The Globe reports that its earlier request for information on the subject was met with a blanket denial from the Department of National Defence. It wasn’t just a matter of the department refusing to disclose details about Polar Breeze: DND told the paper the project didn’t exit.

But the New Democratic Party used the Access to Information law to pry loose heavily censored documents confirming that the project is for real. Confronted with evidence, DND relented, admitting the project’s existence, even if nothing further would be disclosed.

The pattern is disturbingly familiar to me. In the fall of 2007, I reported in Maclean’s on how the Conference of Defence Associations, an industry lobby group, was receiving $100,000 a year from DND, partly in return for placing articles on the op-ed pages of Canadian newspapers—a deal the association told me was outlined in its funding agreement with the department.

I thought those terms were pretty unusual, and of course I asked to see the agreement. But after spending a few weeks considering my request, DND responded by saying its agreement with the group had initially gone to cabinet for approval and hence could not be released under cabinet secrecy rules.

Although cabinet’s attention to a deal for so little money struck me as strange, I accepted DND’s answer in good faith. Later, however, the NDP asked for the same agreement through Parliament and it was released to them. So this was not a cabinet confidence after all. When I complained to DND, an official told me the department’s earlier refusal to give it to me was the result of “human error.”

It is commonplace for federal departments to fail to deal promptly with evidently reasonable requests for information. Journalists have had to get used to this routine frustration. But it is quite another thing to have to consider the possibility that even when unambiguous answers finally arrive, they might very well not be true.

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