Couillard affair points to need for review of security clearances

There appears to be no clear policy on how we handle sensitive documents

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The Gazette, Monday, June 16, 2008

If any good is to come of the Julie Couillard affair, perhaps it might result in a thorough review of security clearances and access to classified documents in Canada. We've never really taken either very seriously in this country.

Allow me to illustrate with a personal anecdote.

In late 1985, when I went to work in the Prime Minister's Office, I was given a Top Secret security clearance, meaning as the PM's speechwriter I could see the most sensitive government documents, security reports and intelligence assessments.

But first, I was informed by my contact at the Privy Council Office, I would have to pass a routine security check. No problem, I just had to fill out a form that included two references.

I wrote down, Brian Mulroney, prime minister of Canada and Robert Bourassa, premier of Quebec.

My PCO contact called back. "You can't use these names," he said.

"Why not?"

"They have to be real people, people you know."

"But I do know them."

"They have to be people we can call."

What kind of questions would they be asking people they could call?

"Whether you knew any communists," he replied.

In fact, I did know one communist, Nick Auf der Maur, who had famously been tossed out of the Soviet Union for loudly proposing a toast to a free Czechoslovakia in the presence of President Leonid Brezhnev. Nick had also been locked up during the October Crisis. I wasn't going to use him as a reference. Besides, he would have ruined the careers of any young RCMP officers sent to interview him - they would have been last seen on Crescent St.

Then, when I began writing speeches, and circulating drafts, I discovered that there was no system for classifying them. So I made one up. If the PM was speaking at the 100th anniversary of Thurso (yes, Guy Lafleur's home town), that would be unclassified. If he was making an address on women's issues, that would be confidential. If he was making a Joint Address to the United States Congress, that was secret.

The hardest part of the job, other than giving the PM what he wanted, was reconciling the competing interests in government. Mulroney's 1988 speech to the U.S. Congress went through nearly 40 drafts that were circulated to the PMO, PCO, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Environment Canada and our embassy in Washington. Everyone wanted a piece of it, and everyone thought he was a writer.

Sometimes the system made me crazy. For example, in 1987, Mulroney was speaking to a NATO Assembly meeting in Quebec City, and wanted to send a positive signal to Mikhail Gorbachev on his policies of glasnost and perestroika. "Mr. Gorbachev is a reformer," the draft read, "and in the Soviet Union there is much in need of reforming."

The foreign affairs branch of PCO sent back the following marginal notation: "It has not yet been conclusively demonstrated that Mr. Gorbachev is a reformer." Institutional caution, not to say stupidity, got the better of them. At PCO's insistence, we took it out. By the time Mulroney got around to saying it, a year later in his Washington speech, it had become a statement of the obvious. And the PCO wondered why we cut them out of the loop.

In the matter of Julie Couillard, while she was dating Maxime Bernier, she received no security clearances. It turns out that, as a biker chick, she was well known to the police. But if no one had asked about her, then there wouldn't have been a background check on her.

And here's the thing - the RCMP don't do security clearances on spouses or companions of cabinet ministers, and haven't since the 1980s. The private lives of ministers are deemed to be their own business. So if Julie Couillard was accompanying Max Bernier, that was enough to get her into a receiving line to meet the president of the United States. Why not? It was enough to get her into Rideau Hall.

What is wrong here, other than Bernier's shocking lack of judgment in the company he kept, is the lack of vetting. Similarly, when he left a briefing book at her place, the system never knew it had gone missing. His carelessness was stupid enough, but the system was equally stupid.

Now a woman who has chosen to become notorious, she will have more to say when she appears before the parliamentary committee this week. Sex, lies and videotape. Who said Canadians were boring?

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