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No need for planned federal secrecy measures, says pro-openness group

OTTAWA - One of Canada's most vocal advocates of government openness says there is no need for a federal plan to extend a permanent cloak of secrecy over the employees of almost a dozen new agencies.

The Harper government wants to ensure the silence of past and present employees of nine federal agencies and those who used to toil at two now-disbanded branches.

Under the proposed rules, the prime minister's national security adviser, a former spy watchdog and many intelligence analysts would be forever prohibited from discussing sensitive aspects of their work.

The British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association says the planned measures seem to be a solution in search of a problem.

"Why these people? Why now?" said Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the association, a non-partisan society formed in 1991 to promote and defend freedom of information and privacy rights in Canada.

"We are supposedly an open society."

The new slate of employees would join the more than 12,000 current and former federal intelligence officials already covered by Security of Information Act provisions that force them to remain silent or face up to 14 years in prison.

"That's a heck of a thing to have hanging over you your entire life," Gogolek said.

The law forbids discussion of "special operational information" including past and current confidential sources, targets of intelligence operations, names of spies, military attack plans, and encryption or other means of protecting information.

In a letter to the federal Justice Department, the B.C. association says there is no rationale for putting more public employees under a perpetual gag order.

"We do not support this measure, nor does the information put forward by the government justify it."

In a notice earlier this month, the government said the move would provide additional assurances to international partners and allies that special operational information shared with Canada will be protected.

The B.C. association says the government should provide evidence the proposed measures would remedy an identifiable problem. "Since no problem has actually been identified, it is impossible to state that the measures being proposed would be in any way effective."

Others "permanently bound to secrecy" under the provisions would be Justice Department lawyers who work on federal security cases, as well as counsel for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada's domestic spy agency, and the Communications Security Establishment, the electronic eavesdropping service.

Lawyers are already bound by client confidentiality provisions and subject to penalties for failing to keep such information under wraps, the association notes. "It is not clear why it is necessary to add the risk of incarceration to this."

Gogolek said even cabinet documents are eventually made public 20 years after creation in the case of federal cabinet records. "And that's about the most secret stuff that we've got."

The federal notice says there will be "minimal impact" on the media, which should not have access to special operational information without permission.

The B.C. association disputes the assessment, saying the measures would have a "chilling effect" on relations with the press.

Democracy Watch, a group that advocates a more open and accountable federal government, has already denounced the proposals as "dangerously undemocratic."

The public has until early next month to comment on the federal proposals.


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