10/17/2011 04:40 EDT | Updated 12/17/2011 05:12 EST

Emergency preparedness audit a state secret, federal government says

OTTAWA - A review of how the federal government's nerve centre would fare during an earthquake or power outage is being kept completely under wraps.

The internal audit of emergency preparedness at the federal Privy Council Office — the agency that serves the prime minister — was completed in May.

Audits of federal programs and policies are routinely posted on departmental web sites.

But not a single word of the Privy Council Office audit on emergency preparedness, and the ability to maintain operations in a crisis, is being made public.

Audit reports are examined under the Access to Information Act to prevent disclosure of secrets, noted Raymond Rivet, a PCO spokesman.

In this case, the agency relied on a provision of the act that allows it to withhold information about the vulnerability of buildings and systems, including computer networks. It is classified as information that, if made public, could provide valuable clues about how to plan a crippling attack.

Still, similar audit reports on Health Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency, and Justice Canada have been conducted and made public in recent years.

The access law includes a number of discretionary exemptions that allow government officials to deny release of records in order to protect national security, said Vincent Kazmierski, an assistant professor of law at Carleton University in Ottawa.

"However, courts in Canada have recently confirmed that such exemptions do not provide carte blanche power to refuse disclosure of entire documents just because they may include some sensitive information that should be protected," he said.

"Rather, government officials must always remember that restrictions on access are meant to be interpreted narrowly, and that they are obliged to release any information in the record that does not fall under the exemption."

The refusal to disclose any part of the audit suggests "an overzealous application of the exemption in this case," he added.

It seems unlikely that "every last word" in the audit report — including background information — would necessarily have to be withheld, said Fred Vallance-Jones, who teaches journalism at University of King's College in Halifax.

"So it strikes me that there may be some excessive secrecy here."

Since there was no formal request for the Privy Council Office audit under the access law, there may be no way to challenge the decision to keep it confidential, added Vallance-Jones, who recently carried out a national freedom-of-information study for Newspapers Canada.

Making such decisions subject to review by the federal information commissioner, an ombudsman for users of the law, would make sense, he said. "If they're going to claim the exemption, perhaps it should be reviewable."

"Because we are talking about the public's right to access information. And if it's simply denied by fiat, then that diminishes the accountability."

Rivet said the Privy Council Office does have contingency plans in place to respond to, and recover from, emergencies and other critical events.

He pointed to a 2009-10 Treasury Board review under what is known as the Management Accountability Framework, in which the PCO received a rating of acceptable on management of security and the ability to maintain business operations following an interruption.

"PCO has continued to make progress in improving its security and emergency management practices since the last MAF assessment," says the review. "Deficiencies previously identified are being addressed and planned activities are progressing."