Conspiracy theories in NAFTA leak

Stories of Canada interfering in U.S. election are Mickey Mouse

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The Gazette, Monday, March 10, 2008

In the grassy-knoll theory of the NAFTA memo leak, the Conservatives sought to undermine Barack Obama's presidential campaign to bolster Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, so as to help the Republicans get the match-up they want for John McCain in the general election.

The conspiracy theory goes that McCain can beat Clinton, a polarizing figure who will mobilize the Republican base, but doesn't have a chance against Obama, the candidate representing hope and change, the two most powerful forces in politics.

This is pretty crazy stuff, but it's actually been suggested by normally serious people, caught up in what they call NAFTAgate, which in itself attests to a delusional sense of self-importance of the entire political class in Ottawa.

The NAFTA memo was a low-level, unclassified diplomatic note, widely circulated within the Department of Foreign Affairs, but so insignificant it initially wasn't even sent over to the Prime Minister's Office. There were 18 recipients in Foreign Affairs on the original list, and nearly 150 people received copies of it.

That it was leaked to the Associated Press only raises the question of why it was written in the first place. Well, it's the sort of institutionally stupid thing that happens every day at Foreign Affairs.

It came out of a meeting that Canada's consul-general in Chicago, Georges Rioux, requested with University of Chicago's Austin Goolsbee, a senior economic adviser to the Obama campaign. A junior official wrote up the meeting, noting Obama's anti-NAFTA rhetoric should be taken in the context of the campaign, thus putting words in Goolsbee's mouth.

Rioux, as the head of the post, would have approved the memo before it was sent to what's known as "headquarters" in Ottawa. That was his mistake, and he should have known better.

Rioux is a former press secretary at our embassy in Washington, and as his former boss there, I can attest he was tremendous at his job, fully versed in all the dangers of the drive-by media shooting. But such is the institutionalized routine of Foreign Affairs that they write things like this up, and everybody at Fort Pearson gets a copy. (And if you want to know why politicians don't like diplomatic officials sitting in on their meetings with foreign politicians, here's all the evidence needed.)

There's no doubt the leak of the Feb. 13 memo, a day before the March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas, was damaging to Obama in that he appeared to be speaking out of both sides of his mouth, especially in the rust-belt state of Ohio. A top Clinton campaign official, Mark Penn, acknowledged it had a significant impact on the result in Ohio, a very competitive race that Clinton won by 10 points, a huge win that together with her narrow victory in Texas, revived her flagging campaign.

As Stephen Harper acknowledged in the House of Commons, the leak was "blatantly unfair to Senator Obama and his campaign." Vowing to get to the bottom of it, the prime minister said he asked the clerk of the Privy Council, Kevin Lynch, to investigate the leak.

It turns out Lynch also will be investigating Ian Brodie, the PM's chief of staff (and a guy he works with every day. How does that work?)

This is where the conspiracy theories really abound. It turns out that in the lockup on Feb. 26, Brodie might have had a very brief conversation with a CTV journalist, David Akin, in which he might have played down the anti-NAFTA rhetoric of both Clinton and Obama. As it happens, the Ohio debate took place that evening, and in response to questioning by NBC's Tim Russert, Clinton said she would walk away from NAFTA if Canada and Mexico didn't agree to renegotiate it, and Obama agreed with that.

CTV's Washington correspondent Tom Clark filed a piece the next night saying the Obama campaign had assured the embassy his campaign rhetoric should be taken in context. The story was denied by the embassy, even though Clark had bona-fide embassy sources on it. Turns out the original information came from the consulate in Chicago.

Or did it? Did Brodie, by an unlikely indiscretion, indirectly tip CTV off to the story?

Subsequently, a CTV journalist gave a talk to a group of students and Carleton University, and referred to the lock-up conversation with Brodie. Someone then called the CBC's Susan Bonner, who confirmed the story with a CTV journalist. Journalists never talk about their sources, least of all to the competition. Someone had a huge brain cramp and will be very lucky not to lose his job.

All of which assumes Akin, or someone in the CTV Ottawa bureau, spoke to Tom Clark before he filed his piece. But what if no one spoke to him? Newsrooms are vertically organized in the chain of command, but bureaus notoriously never speak to one another. Clark has been very tenacious in regularly reporting every NAFTA wrinkle in the Democratic race without any help from Canadian colleagues.

It's entirely possible his sources for the story were all in the United States, and that Brodie is completely in the clear. More than entirely possible, my sense is that it's quite probable. It's a Mickey Mouse story all round. I'm thinking of moving to a more serious country.

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