POLITICS

More bureaucrats, departmental lawyers facing life-long gag order

03/13/2014 02:20 EDT | Updated 05/13/2014 05:59 EDT
The government is extending life-long secrecy provisions to cover additional lawyers and bureaucrats who may work — or have worked on — national security files in the course of their duties.

According to the official notice posted to the Canada Gazette website on Wednesday, seven legal service and advisory units within the Department of Justice, the RCMP and the Privy Council Office will be added to the list of entities whose employees are "permanently bound to secrecy" under theSecurity of Information Act, as will five additional units that have been subsequently been dissolved, but whose former staffers will now be subject to the life-long gag order.

Individuals subject to the Act could be sentenced for up to 14 years in prison for "intentionally and without authority communicating or confirming information that, "if true … would be special operational information."

It does, however, provide for a limited public interest defence, as the notice points out in explaining the rationale behind the expanded list.

"The regime that applies to persons permanently bound to secrecy provides for a limited public interest defence […] which, in some circumstances, a person is not guilty of an offence […] if the public interest in the disclosure outweighs the public interest in non-disclosure."

The changes were made based on "extensive consultations" between 2009 and 2013, including a 30-day period for public comment last June, which resulted in submissions from four people and one association.

According to the "key comments" included in the official summary, the primary concern was the danger of "permanent secrecy," which could "deprive Canadians of a historical perspective of actions and efforts taken to protect them."

'Obligation for secrecy'

"Concerns were also raised about the chilling effect on information being provided to members of the media from any person subject to the Order and about whether these measures could be used to conceal illegality," the summary notes.

Ultimately, however, the government concluded that such fears were unfounded.

While the "obligation for secrecy" is, indeed, "valid perpetually," it notes that "this is not true of the status of 'special operational information' as defined by section 8 of the Act," creating an exemption.

"This qualification disappears when, for example, the federal government stops taking protective measures regarding the information in question."

As for the risk of media chill, "there would be minimal impact on the press, which should not have access to special operational information without authorization."