How Stephen Harper gets to the bottom of something

Paul Wells asks why the PM failed to follow his own precedent

The Prime Minister’s chief of staff has done something questionable! It’ll cost his job. What on earth can a PM do to get the straight story?

He can, of course, obfuscate for months. He can refuse to answer questions, then say, wearily, he has answered all the questions. He can call in to radio shows and substantially amend his earlier version of events. But five months after Nigel Wright got quit, how’s that working out for you, Prime Minister?

There is, however, an earlier precedent. A remarkably different precedent. One set, not by some impossibly high-minded other PM, but by Stephen Harper himself, and not long ago either. This Prime Minister has shown how it is possible to get to the bottom of questions relating to his own office’s operations — when, that is, he actually wants to.

In 2008, Harper’s then-chief of staff Ian Brodie said something about the U.S. election to reporters in a budget lockup. Brodie’s remarks seemed to indicate, or could be (and therefore soon were) interpreted to indicate, a preference for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in that winter’s primary elections for the U.S. Democratic Party presidential nomination. The resulting uproar made headlines around the world and led the Clinton camp to launch attack ads, based on Brodie’s reported remarks, against Obama in primary states. Within months Brodie was out of the PMO.

I believe Brodie was simply passing along an inaccurate version of half-digested gossip as his way of making small talk with some reporters; the whole business is documented in my new book. But at the time the whole business caused Harper a world of hurt, because it was getting him off on spectacularly poor footing with a potential future U.S. president.

So here’s what Harper did:

On March 5, 2008, the Prime Minister asked the Clerk of the Privy Council to launch an internal security investigation into allegations of unauthorized disclosures by Mr. Ian Brodie, Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister, and Mr. Michael Wilson, Ambassador of Canada to the United States, of the purported position of U.S. Democratic presidential candidates in relation to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

That quote comes from the final report that Kevin Lynch, then the country’s top bureaucrat, made public in its entirety ten weeks later. It describes a process far more serious and thorough than anything Harper has permitted or contemplated in the latest crisis.

More from Lynch’s report, with emphasis added so you can scan and get the gist:

The Clerk of the Privy Council asked the Director, Security Operations, Privy Council Office (PCO) to lead the investigation. Seconded to PCO from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Director, Security Operations, is a senior officer at the rank of Chief Superintendent and has extensive investigative experience.

 The Director, Security Operations, PCO, engaged the services of two professional investigators from BMCI Investigations & Security Ltd., given the scope and complexity of the investigation, and the volume of information to be examined. Both investigators have extensive experience and specialize in domestic and international investigations involving allegations of criminal activity, fraud, breach of trust, unauthorized disclosure of official information, misappropriation of public funds and other sensitive issues…

 For searches of electronic data and communication logs, the Director, Security Operations, PCO, was also assisted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s (DFAIT) Security and Intelligence Bureau, the Informatics and Technical Services and the Telecommunications Services divisions of PCO, and departmental security officers of four other federal departments.

And so they set to work, interviewing 36 people in two cities with officials including Brodie. Some were interviewed more than once. In addition:

“The investigation also involved a review of logs of telephone calls placed by officials of interest from their office land-line and cellular phones…. Transmission logs from fax machines used by officials of interest during the same time frame were similarly examined…. All emails relating to either disclosure and found in the mailboxes of these same officials were checked … Finally, unclassified, classified and BlackBerry™ electronic mailboxes of federal officials and ministerial staff who received the original diplomatic report from Chicago were examined…”

The whole process took 10 weeks. If Harper had launched a similar process in May it would have been done by the end of July. For Conservatives gathering in convention in Calgary this week while Mike Duffy rains holy hell down on them in dribs and drabs, that timeline looks like a beautiful world that might have been.

Assigning the Clerk to hire some private detectives and rummage around PMO, PCO and DFAIT is not a perfect solution. The Clerk got his job from Harper. He is not perfectly insulated from accusations of bias. And indeed, when Lynch released his report, a few opposition MPs spent a few days trying half-heartedly to accuse Lynch of a whitewash. But it didn’t stick because a serious man had done serious work with serious resources.

The Prime Minister’s failure to follow his own precedent — not some imaginary perfect PM’s practice, but the standard he set for an earlier chief of staff during an earlier public and highly politicized scandal — cannot be reconciled with the notion that he is interested in making a good-faith attempt to understand what Nigel Wright did behind his back between February and May of this year.  It is much easier to believe he does not want to know. Or that he knows and does not want us to know.


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