Thursday, 5 October 2006

Get your department under control, Minister O'Connor!

Gordon O'ConnorThe Ottawa Citizen has been highlighting some of the nonsensical censoring going on at the Department of National Defence. To wit:
Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor has no intention of dealing with the wave of censorship that has seen his department classify as secret information ranging from the fact that Canadian commandos fought in the Second World War to the hourly cost of operating the military's VIP jets.

O'Connor's spokesman Etienne Allard said it is up to Defence Department bureaucrats to manage the release of such government records to the public through the access to information law.

As part of its latest secrecy push, the Defence Department on Tuesday declared that releasing information showing Canadians fought with the famed Devil's Brigade during the Second World War could harm national security. Also censored from the records, released to the Ottawa Citizen under the federal access law, are the locations where the Devil's Brigade fought in Europe in the 1940s.

Additional details now being kept from the public are the costs to the department to run individual pieces of equipment, a list that ranges from electric snowblowers to forklifts. Information about the hourly cost of flying the military's Challenger jets, used to ferry politicians and bureaucrats, is also now secret. Such information had been available to the public through the access law up until 2004.
Bureaucrats, it is commonly known, seem to have a natural aversion to being under scrutiny. Government bureaucrats develop particularly severe cases, and those in military departments push the pathology to ridiculous levels. This is true of all governments in all countries, under parties of all political stripes.

It is therefore an essential part of the minister's job description to implement frequent reality checks, and it doesn't look like Gordon O'Connor has quite grasped this. It is crucial that he understand that the knee jerk, compulsive secrecy that military departments so naturally fall into is highly destructive. And the group that it hurts the most is the military.

Nobody in his right mind debates the fact that there are real military secrets that it is not in our best interest to have bruited about. Plans for dealing with terrorists, technical details of military hardware, and other similar things are best kept under wraps, for obvious reasons.

But covering up details of 60-year old missions - many of which have been or still or in the public domain - is sheer lunacy and it just plays to the negative image of a military out of control. The question we all ask ourselves when we read stuff like this is "How much can we trust our military? Anybody so reflexively terrified of normal scrutiny must have something bad to hide."

Canada's military has only recently recovered from a long slump in public affections. It is not in its best interest to foster suspicion and mistrust and this kind of anal behaviour can do only that. O'Connor needs to make it clear to both the bureaucrats and the generals that the enemy they are fighting is neither the Canadian public nor Canadian journalists. Admittedly, we can be a little foolish at times, but not everything the military does and has done is of a sensitive nature and any informtion that isn't genuinely sensitive should be available to anyone who asks. A free society depends on civilian oversight of the military and civilian oversight depends on information.

It is the minister's job to defend the military's interests to the Canadian public. It is also his job to defend the Canadian public's interests to the military. You're the boss, Minister O'Connor! Put your foot down!

Email Gordon O'Connor.

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