POLITICS

MacKay, PMO deny government campaign to smear top soldier

03/23/2012 04:15 EDT | Updated 05/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Defence Minister Peter MacKay denied Friday there was a high-level government campaign to tarnish the reputation of Canada's top soldier, Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk.

"I don't believe that," MacKay told reporters when asked about smear allegations revealed in a Toronto Star story.

The newspaper obtained documents under the Access to Information Act that offered insights into the discussions inside the general's office last September, after a television report revealed Natynczyk's past use of a military Challenger jet to join his family on vacation in the Caribbean.

"What I know … having worked for almost five years with General Walter Natynczyk is that he is one of the finest men that I have ever met," MacKay told reporters at a news conference in Edmonton. "I have nothing but confidence and support for General Natynczyk in the important job that he does as the top soldier in the Canadian Forces."

MacKay's comments echoed those released to the media earlier by Andrew MacDougall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's spokesman.

"The Chief of Defence Staff has our full confidence," MacDougall wrote. "Taxpayers expect government officials to conduct the nation's business at a reasonable cost. We believe the Chief of Defence Staff did so in this case."

Last September, Natynczyk said he had "nothing to apologize for" in his use of military aircraft.

Flight logs exposed

Last fall, a journalist obtained flight logs showing the CDS using the military's jet to attend events including the Calgary Stampede, as well as taking the Challenger to catch up with his family, who were vacationing on the Caribbean isle of Saint Maarten.

The general was late for his holiday because he wanted to attend a repatriation ceremony for four soldiers and a journalist killed in Afghanistan before his previously-scheduled departure.

After the story broke, the documents show Natynczyk wrote to his senior media adviser, Lt.-Col. Norbert Cyr, over his suspicion of a "certain source, placed high in Government."

Another document shows Cyr characterizing the leaked report as a "hatchet job" that was "well-orchestrated."

A few days later, another comment from Cyr expressed disappointment that MacKay had not stepped up to defend Natynczyk's use of the military aircraft.

It's unclear exactly who Natynczyk's office eventually concluded was responsible for the leaked flight logs.

The general's use of the military jets was overshadowed a few days later by a report that MacKay had used a military search and rescue helicopter to pick him up from vacation at a remote fishing lodge in Newfoundland and Labrador so he could attend a government new conference in London, Ont., later that day.

MacKay has denied the military helicopter was diverted to pick him up. Documents show the military was asked to pick up the minister "under the guise" of a search-and-rescue training exercise.