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Harper's Gag Orders Sweep While Canadians Sleep

Posted: Updated:
STEPHEN HARPER
AP

The Harper government wants to hide all of its secrets.

While reviewing the latest edition of the federal government's little-known legislative bulletin, The Canada Gazette, Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill noticed a troubling detail: a new order is now on the table that would dramatically expand the number of current - and former - federal government employees under a lifetime gag order, potentially curbing the right to free expression for thousands of Canadians.

The order is certainly dramatic and sweeping in scope, but it's not a new development. Lifetime gag orders for certain federal employees were part of the original Anti-Terrorism Act, which came into force on Christmas Eve 2001. At present, it affects about 12,000 people. It's not known exactly how many more people will be subject to the gag as a result of this latest order, but given that it would extend to CSIS' legal service units, the CSE (Canada's spy and electronic communication surveillance agencies), and the Privy Council Office.

The timing is spot on. In recent weeks, CSIS and the CSE have come under intense public scrutiny in response to the revelation of enormous telecom and online surveillance operations by the U.S. National Security Agency.

Employees lassoed by this order would be prevented from disclosing (or even confirming the existence of) so-called "special operational information." This includes confidential intelligence sources, targets of operations, names of spies, military plans, various techniques or technologies, plus encryption and other means of protecting data.

What brought about this rush for hyper secrecy?

The federal government provides this justification:

The proposed Order would enable the Government of Canada to provide additional assurances to its international partners and allies that special operational information shared with Canada will be protected.

But strangely enough, the government failed to provide any indication that any international partner has actually complained that its current assurances of confidentiality are inadequate.

Expanding the number of people potentially liable for up to 14 years of jail should require, at the very least, some indication that there is a problem on hand. None have been disclosed.

It's not just spies who are affected by this order. Former employees of the former CSIS Inspector General (an oversight body abolished last year) will also be subjected to the gag order.

So will three different groups of lawyers, despite the fact that they are already bound by client confidentiality provisions in their Code of Professional Conduct. Why add the risk of 14 years of jail to the penalties lawyers already face if they improperly disclose client information?

But it's not like the government doesn't want to hear from you on this one. You have until July 8 to send any helpful hints or suggestions you might have for what they can do with this order, according to The Gazette.

Just don't try to email them. It's snail mail or fax only for this consultation, which just goes to show you just how much they value your input.

FIPA's response (spoiler alert: we're against it) has already been faxed to the Department of Justice. We suggest you do likewise, even if you have to lick stamps or dust off the fax machine to do so.

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