OTTAWA - The Harper government called in the RCMP to investigate a politically embarrassing story involving the decision to sole-source the purchase of the F-35 stealth fighter, claiming it was a breach of national security, The Canadian Press has learned.
The Mounties conducted a five-month review into an alleged leak of cabinet documents under the Security of Information Act, recently used to charge a naval intelligence officer in an apparent spy case.
Records obtained under the Access to Information Act show investigators had doubts almost from the outset in July 2010 that any laws were broken in the Globe and Mail story.
The story revealed angst within government about possible alienation from Washington if a competition was held to replace the air force's CF-18s.
Still, the review pressed ahead and drew in one of the RCMP's four Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams, whose job it is to chase terrorism threats.
It was shut down in December 2010 for lack of evidence.
The case file shows the complaint was laid by Wayne Wouters, clerk of the Privy Council, the country's highest-ranking civil servant and adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, shortly after the article appeared on June 11, 2010.
The story by reporter Daniel Leblanc ran a month before the Harper government formally announced it had selected the Lockheed Martin-built F-35 in a glitzy photo-op that included a mock-up of the radar-evading jet.
The first RCMP member to review the allegation on July 8 was mystified as to what the issue might be.
"By reading the article, it is unclear how the info, interferes with the development of weapons or jeopardizes the safety of Canada," said the summary file, which rated the preliminary investigation as a medium priority.
"It is an analytical fact that Canada and the USA are allies in several aspects. International competition may hinder Can-US relationships if Canada decides to turn down US offer, and the Globe and Mail article has not shed new lights on these facts or revealed secrets."
Doubts about the substance of the complaint lingered until the file was closed, the records show.
The prime minister's communications director defended the decision to ask for an investigation.
"The RCMP was asked to look into a possible unauthorized disclosure of classified information as has been done from time to time," said Andrew MacDougall in an email.
A spokesman for the RCMP, Cpl. David Falls, said the force has a mandate to "investigate the unauthorized disclosure, mishandling or communication of classified information," but declined to comment on the specifics of the Globe and Mail investigation, referring questions to the Privy Council Office.
The case file reveals investigators recommended on Sept. 2, 2010, the review be shut down. The complaint could be "concluded as it does not constitute a breach of secret or protected documents."
Yet it was kept alive by senior officers, who insisted National Defence be consulted, especially in light of reports that summer that computers at the 1st Canadian Air Division headquarters had been hacked.
As it turned out, the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service was already looking into the issue, but as part of the wider damage assessment of the massive leak of U.S. documents to the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks.
Military police said they had "no way of knowing what cabinet document was released" and later concluded that the Globe and Mail story did not constitute a breach, according to records and defence sources.
The RCMP closed its file in November 2010, but was forced to "re-activate" the case and "investigate further" because it was noted no one had talked to Wouters.
The file "should not have been concluded at this time before the complainant was met and had a chance to explain why he thinks there was a leak of 'secret cabinet documents,'" said a Dec. 22, 2010, notation.
The investigator apparently tried to contact Wouters, seeking clarification and was rebuked by the National Security Criminal Operations Branch, which noted the complaint had been filed by letter through the commissioner's office.
It took Mounties in charge of the case two-and-a-half months to get their hands on an actual copy the letter, which had been "kept at the commissioner's office."
In finally shutting down the probe, the Mounties said "since the information was available on open source, it was decided that no further investigation was needed."
Wesley Wark, an expert in security and intelligence at the University of Ottawa, said he was concerned by the revelations in the file. He described the probe as a misuse of not only the RCMP, but of the security legislation, one of the most serious laws on the book.
"This has the whiff, well more than a whiff, of a politically inspired move," said Wark.
"The complaint was coming from an odd place, an admittedly senior place within the government. The fact the clerk would ask the commissioner to do this is in of itself very unusual."
He said it would not have been so unusual had the request for an investigation come from either the deputy ministers at Defence or Foreign Affairs — departments that would have had a more direct say whether the story contained classified information.
But even in those cases, Wark said, departments have their own security officers who track media leaks and those rarely amount to criminal investigations.
He said it is also unusual in that the government would have known that media leak provisions of the legislation were struck down a few years ago in the aftermath of the case where Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill's home was raided following stories she wrote about the Maher Arar affair.
"There are a number of things at work here that are troubling, quite apart from what appears to be the silliness of the exercise in the first place and the waste of resources," said Wark.
"Even if they had a strong case, prudence would suggest this is not the kind of thing you would want to pursue. The Security of Information Act doesn't exist to be used for politically inspired chill."