Information underload (Sept. 6, 2007)

The endemic epidemic of secrecy

During an opening-day address to law students at the University of Ottawa Tuesday, Maher Arar posed an interesting question to a standing-room-only hall full of future lawyers: “Who will you include and who will you exclude?”

At one level, Arar — whose deportation, detention and torture in the soiled name of combating terrorism transformed the mild-mannered Ottawa software engineer into the public personification of all that can go wrong when secrecy trumps the rule of law — was talking to the lawyers about the need for lawyers to fight for justice by taking on cases and causes that need to be fought, not just clients who can pay the highest fees.

But on an another, slightly more prosaic level, Arar was also alluding to the federal government’s new and top secret “no-fly” list. The blandly named “Passenger Protect” list contains the names of between 500 and 2,000 people who are considered “an immediate threat” to air security. But Ottawa won’t say who’s on the list or why their names are included.

Not to worry, they say. Trust us. There are secret safeguards in the secret system to make sure only the right people are on the list.

Worry, Arar told the students. Consider not only what was done to him by the very same officials who are now overseeing the new no-fly list, but consider too the lengths they went to in order to cover their tracks in his case — even including blacking out sections of the public inquiry report into his deportation to Syria to be tortured. It took a court ruling to force the government to release some of the redacted sections of the report last month, which made it clear the government was just trying to protect itself from embarrassment.

When one of the students asked him about the no-fly list, Arar answered: “The security agencies are telling us we should trust them. My answer to that would be, we’ve seen good examples where we trusted them and then at the end of the day, those redacted portions had nothing to do with national security.”

Indeed.

The reality is that governments time and again demonstrate they aren’t to be trusted when it comes to what information needs to be kept secret and what can be entrusted to the public.

On matters of much more mundane interest, in fact, my experience is that local information gatekeepers can be just as butt-covering.

When I filed a freedom of information request last winter, for example, asking the Capital District Health Authority for details about how much it had wasted — I didn’t use that word, but it’s true — on each of the outside legal firms it hired to cover its butt in the Dr. Gabrielle Horne case, the authority initially stonewalled, ludicrously claiming solicitor-client privilege on the amounts of the bills it had paid the firms. After I appealed, they grudgingly released the embarrassingly large global figure, but still refused to say how much went to each firm. Solicitor-client privilege or lawyer privilege?

When I asked the Halifax Regional police for a copy of its review of the 2004 Shirley Street standoff, it obligingly sent it along, with several blacked-out — redacted in the jargon — sections. One of those turned out to be covering up the fact the Crown prosecutor in the case had told the police there weren’t sufficient grounds to lay charges in the case in the months before its actions transformed a child apprehension order into a crime scene.

Such bureaucratic butt-covering is endemic and epidemic.

In yesterday’s Daily News alone, there were reports of two more instances.

The province’s Workers’ Compensation Board announced it will be imposing a new surcharge on 79 local firms that, over the past four years “have consistently and significantly worse experience than their industry peers” when it comes to on-the-job accidents. But the WCB refuses to disclose the names of the firms. How come? Surely, potential employees should have the right to know if they’re applying for a job at a company that’s an accident-waiting-to-happen.

And what about the story out of Halifax Regional Council yesterday that councilors — and the rest of us — will have to file freedom of information requests in order to see material gathered at public expense for the failed 2014 Commonwealth Games bid?

“I just don’t know how these people can get away with this, Coun. Gloria McCluskey lamented. “How they can get away with not telling us?”

Another interesting question.

Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. He will be the featured speaker at tonight’s Fuller Terrace Fundamental Freedoms Public Lecture Series. His subject: “Halifax: Last Outpost of the American South.” For information: fullerterracefreedoms@gmail.com

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Copyright 2007 Stephen Kimber, Website

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