Category Archives: National Security Sunday

Toronto Star & CTV’s front-line Iraq coverage amounts to little more than a military PR exercise

Image description: The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, and Air Task Force-Iraq Commander, Colonel Shayne Elder (right), inspect the Honour Guard of Canadian Armed Forces members deployed on Operation IMPACT at Camp Patrice Vincent, Kuwait, on February 21, 2016. Vance recently travelled to the front lines in northern Iraq, where he was interviewed by the Toronto Star and CTV. (Image credit: Canadian Armed Forces)

Image description: The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, and Air Task Force-Iraq Commander, Colonel Shayne Elder (right), inspect the Honour Guard of Canadian Armed Forces members deployed on Operation IMPACT at Camp Patrice Vincent, Kuwait, on February 21, 2016. Vance recently travelled to the front lines in northern Iraq, where he was interviewed by the Toronto Star and CTV. (Image credit: Canadian Armed Forces)

The Toronto Star and CTV are currently in the midst of a three-day exclusive profile of Canadian Special Forces training Kurdish peshmerga soldiers on the front lines of the war against Daesh (the so-called “Islamic State”) in northern Iraq. But unfortunately, their reporting so far has amounted to little more than stenography, with an apolitical and pro-military point of view presented without an iota of criticism or balance. Given the recent history of the Canadian Forces’ relationship with the media, it’s reasonable to speculate that the friendliness of this coverage was a condition to which the media organizations agreed in exchange for access.

The frontline access granted to the Star and CTV is a notable departure from the intense secrecy which has shrouded this mission since its earliest days. Other than sporadic glimpses on fear-mongering political tours, reporters have generally been denied access to the area, particularly reporters who come asking difficult questions, as the Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon did in the months after the death of Canada’s lone casualty in the conflict, Sgt. Andrew Dorion, at the hands of the very Kurdish peshmerga troops he had been training.

MacKinnon was repeatedly turned away despite obtaining permission from all relevant authorities to travel to the area, and Department of National Defence officials were pointedly vague and politely uncooperative in response to persistent inquiries from the Globe on the matter. The military’s top brass was likely not too pleased with the resulting long read, which dug deeply into the many questions still surrounding Dorion’s death and highlighted the highly contingent and transactional nature of the Kurds’ alliance with Western militaries.

This was likely exactly what Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance had in mind when he criticized media coverage he perceives as being hostile to the military. Last fall, Vance, whose visit to the front lines is a central highlight of the Star/CTV coverage, put forward plans to “weaponize” the information DND shared with the media. This incredible story, broken by the Ottawa Citizen’s David Pugliese, didn’t get nearly enough attention at the time, and is extremely relevant in light of this Star/CTV exclusive:

There will be more strategic leaks by the Canadian Forces/DND to journalists who are deemed “friendly” to the military. Such leaks will consist mainly of “good news” stories or positive initiatives and the journalists will be required to heavily promote those.

Equally important, is the flip-side of this “weaponization” strategy. That is the targeting of journalists who are writing or broadcasting the stories that the [Canadian Forces]/DND don’t want out in the public domain.

Journalists seen as “trouble-makers” are those producing stories about failed equipment purchases or uncovering details about severely injured soldiers not being treated properly or individuals being sexually harassed, etc., public affairs officers tell Defence Watch.  In other words, reporters who are producing what the CF/DND views as negative or embarrassing news stories.

The “weaponization” aspect will come into play with phone calls to media bosses, letters to the editor, etc. – anything to undercut the credibility of such journalists in the eyes of readers and their employers, NDHQ public affairs sources say. Other tactics aimed at these journalists could also be developed.

Vance later tried to downplay the report, saying that while he understood why some may find the term “weaponization” “aggressive”, he merely “want[ed] Defence to be a respected voice in the very important defence dialogue that goes on in the country”. Notwithstanding these comments, given the military’s history of intimidating reporters who cover them unfavourably, it would be understandable if this threat of “weaponization” put a chill on critical coverage of Canada’s operations in Iraq.

It also simultaneously created a perverse incentive – outlets which provided positive coverage which was “friendly” to the military would be rewarded. It seems that the Star and CTV have won this teacher’s pet contest, and are doing their best to maintain their current level of access with what ultimately amount to hero-worshipping puff pieces.

The Star’s piece on Friday, sensationally headlined “Daesh is doomed, Canada’s top general says during dramatic visit to Iraq”, is an exercise in security theatre. Peppered with details on the dangers of the visit (“Anything in the bushes, avoid it. The last thing I want is for you guys is to step on something that goes boom,” a Canadian special operations sergeant cautioned journalists as they awaited Vance’s arrival”), the article is profoundly deferential to Vance, who is given a platform from which to uncritically promote the mission and confidently declare that it will inevitably be successful:

Today, the Star gushes about the incredible progress Canada’s incredible Special Forces (“experts in the craft of warfare…among the best in the world…trained to handle worst-case scenarios at home and abroad”) have made in training and assisting peshmerga troops:

“Since we’ve been working here in northern Iraq, we’ve seen outstanding progress. They are very capable fighters. They will absolutely fight to the last man to protect their homes,” a major with special operations forces told the Star…

But the Canadians are more than just military teachers. They are a welcome reassurance, a morale booster in what has been a difficult fight against the extremists…

“As peshmerga we gained a lot from the Canadians, from training to help during major attacks. We thank them for all this,” one pesh soldier told Canadian journalists as he stood watch in an observation post.

Meanwhile, CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme, absurdly wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest emblazoned with the word PRESS, opened her exclusive front-line interview with Vance with what is possibly the softest softball question of all time:

LAFLAMME: So tell me about, you know, this is such a rare opportunity for Canadians to finally see who Canada’s Special Forces are. Why was that important for you to share this message now?

VANCE: Well, I guess I’ll start with, Lisa, by saying that to me, every member of the Canadian Armed Forces is special, and every part of the Armed Forces has something special and important to offer to a military mission. In the specific case of CANSOF [Canadian Special Operations Forces], this is an organization that I want Canadians to be proud of. I think we should be proud of them. They’re wonderful people – you know, bright, motivated, and exceptionally well trained. And we’re one of a very, very small number of nations in the world that can do what we do.

Just in case you forgot – this is the exact same general who just months ago was threatening career-sabotaging reprisals against journalists who covered the military unfavourably. Is it any wonder large sections of the Star’s reporting reads like it could have been directly copied from a DND press release? Or that LaFlamme gave Vance every opportunity to make himself and his troops look good?

This “exclusive coverage” has not in any way offer the public a better understanding of Canada’s military mission in Iraq, and especially not of the fraught political context in which it operates. Instead, it’s been a fairly blatant exercise in public relations, uncritically promoting Canadian Special Forces, their peshmerga-training mission, and of course, Gen. Jonathan Vance.

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Canada’s overlooked baggage of foreign colonialism

Image description: Several heavily armed Canadian soldiers in camouflage uniforms stand on a dusty Afghan road, rifles in hand, as a tank approaches. Off to the side, two Afghan men with bicycles lean against a partially destroyed building, watching the scene. (Image credit: ISAF/Wikipedia

Image description: Several heavily armed Canadian soldiers in camouflage uniforms stand on a dusty Afghan road, rifles in hand, as a tank approaches. Off to the side, two Afghan men with bicycles lean against a partially destroyed building, watching the scene. (Image credit: ISAF/Wikipedia)

Speaking to an audience at New York University this past week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set off a tempest of argument in Parliament and online with a seemingly off-the-cuff statement that Canada doesn’t have “the baggage” of a “colonial past”.

The remark was a reply to a question about peacekeeping, and Trudeau’s handlers and defenders were quick to point out that the Prime Minister was referring to colonialism in a foreign context, and not denying the legacy of colonialism in (so-called) Canada.

In fact, as the CBC pointed out, Trudeau delved into that painful legacy during the same talk:

Trudeau also spoke critically of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people — and specifically mentioned “colonial behaviours” — in comments that were not in the National Observer article.

“We have consistently marginalized, engaged in colonial behaviours, in destructive behaviours, in assimilationist behaviours, that have left a legacy of challenges to a large portion of the people who live in Canada who are Indigenous peoples,” Trudeau said, in answering a question from a student.

Nevertheless, Trudeau has come under fire for the comments. Some see the distinction between foreign and domestic colonialism as meaningless, as Canada is a product of colonialist ideology. It is a nation which was literally built on the colonial dispossession of land and resources from Indigenous peoples, a genocidal process which continues to this day.

Less discussed is this debate, however, is Trudeau’s erroneous assertion that Canada doesn’t have “baggage” when it comes to colonialism in other parts of the world. Continue Reading

Are Saudi threats behind Liberals’ reluctant approval of arms deal?

Image: A big-ass tank with like eight wheels and two armed soldiers sticking out the top in a sandy-looking locale. (Image credit: General Dynamics Land Systems Canada) NOTE: this may not be the actual model of Light Artillery Vehicle GDLS is selling to Saudi Arabia with Canadian governmental mediation and approval; details are sketchy, but the Globe and Mail reports that whatever they look like, they’re gonna be deadly.

Since the last time I wrote about the Canadian government’s unconscionable $15 billion arms deal with human rights pariah Saudi Arabia, it’s become clear that the Trudeau Liberals haven’t been entirely honest with the public.

Upon assuming office last November, the Liberals insisted, on the rare occasions they deigned to speak about the matter, that the deal was done, and that their hands were tied. As unfortunate as that was, there was nothing they could do about it without damaging the credibility of the Canadian government.

That was always a disingenuous argument. The Department of Foreign Affairs is required by law to block the sale of arms when it has reason to believe they may be used against civilian populations, and whatever contractual credibility the Canadian government was preserving was massively outweighed by lost credibility on human rights issues.

But it now turns out that it was also a completely inaccurate argument. The final export permits for more than 70% of the equipment involved in the sale were signed not by Rob Nicholson, Stephen Harper’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, but by Stéphane Dion, just days ago. Continue Reading

Pre-crime arrest shows Trudeau Liberals intend to leave C-51 mostly intact

Image: A hand holds a cardboard sign reading “C-51 IS TERRORISM – REJECT FEAR”

For well over a year now, Justin Trudeau’s promise to “fix” the “problematic aspects” of Bill C-51 once his party formed government has been the source of considerable uncertainty. Just what exactly does he mean by “problematic”? Which parts will he keep, and which will he amend, and which will he discard? Neither the Prime Minister nor his Public Safety Minister, Ralph Goodale, have been particularly detailed in their public statements on the matter, although careful parsing of their interviews do glean some insights, at least about some things they intend to change.

The government’s focus so far has been on increased oversight of intelligence and security agencies, both by existing bodies and by a new committee of parliamentarians. (Although their major cuts to the budget of SIRC, the body which provides oversight to CSIS, raises serious questions about their commitment to robust oversight.) They’ve made vaguely reassuring noises about protecting “civil” protest and have promised to tidy up the bureaucratic Gordian Knot commonly known as the no-fly list.

But they’ve been silent about privacy concerns, and documents recently released in response to a Freedom of Information request begrudgingly acknowledged that Canadians’ private information has been shared by at least four agencies, one of which had its name completely redacted from the release. Given the responsiveness of CSE to Defence Minister Sarjit Hajjan’s demand that the signals intelligence agency stop sharing information with its foreign counterparts during the metadata scandal which erupted earlier this year, we have to presume that this inter-agency C51-approved info-sharing is happening with the Trudeau government’s blessing.

The government has been equally circumspect as to their plans for the controversially expansive new powers granted to spy agencies like CSIS. In fact, they’ve been frustratingly tight-lipped on the subject of how they have been using these new powers since they formed government last year, and are keeping their predecessors’ instructions to CSIS on how to use these powers top secret. This silence, as I’ve suggested, always seemed to indicate that they intended to leave these issues unaddressed.

And with the arrest of Kevin Omar Mohamed by the RCMP last week, the Liberal government has finally and conclusively tipped their hand – the security agencies’ new powers look to be here to say. Continue Reading

Defying all reason, NATO is shambling towards another disastrous war in Libya

Image description: Two fighter jets release explosives in mid-air. (Image credit: Coto Report)

Image description: Two fighter jets release explosives in mid-air, apparently over Benghazi, Libya. (Image credit: Coto Report)

As Canada and its NATO allies gear up for yet another military intervention in Libya, I feel it’s worth asking what exactly they hope to accomplish there.

Note I don’t say “what we hope to accomplish”. I was against the first round of bombing and political interference and sneaky boots-on-the-ground special-forces whatever-it-was-they-did (cause-we’ll-never-know), although of course Stephen Harper & Co. never asked me for my opinion. And I’m solidly against a second ill-conceived round of open-ended meddling into one of the more complex civil wars in the world, mostly on the grounds that Western militaries caused the damn war by virtue of its first ill-conceived intervention, and haven’t exactly demonstrated any kind of penitence or even awareness that they played a role in creating the chaos that subsumes Libya today.

If you’ve forgotten about the First Libyan War Non-Combat Operation, or if you weren’t paying attention at the time, here’s how it went down: Continue Reading

Canada ending ill-conceived air war, expanding ill-conceived ground war in Iraq

Image description: Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (right) looks on as U.S. Navy Admiral Bill Gortney speaks at the Halifax International Security Forum. (Image credit: U.S. Embassy Canada/Flickr)

Image description: Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (right) looks on as U.S. Navy Admiral Bill Gortney speaks at the Halifax International Security Forum on November 20, 2015. (Image credit: U.S. Embassy Canada/Flickr)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has fallen under heavy criticism from the Conservative Party this past week over the government’s recently announced revamp of Canada’s war non-combat operation with ISIS/Daesh. Interim leader Rona Ambrose slammed the ending of the Air Force’s bombing mission in Iraq and Syria as “shameful”, and called Trudeau “dangerously naive” for his belief that the best approach to the conflict was, in his words, a “reasonable” one.

“There’s no reasoning with terrorists of this kind, that’s why it’s important to send a very clear signal that we are willing to do what it takes to fight a threat of this nature,” Ambrose told the CBC’s Rosemary Barton.

But the Conservatives, as is par for the course, are barking up the wrong tree on this one. Distracted by the smell of red meat for their base – cowardice in the face of Islamic terrorism! – they’ve missed the true issues in PMJT’s mission relaunch.

The fact of the matter is that the end of Canada’s ill-conceived air war, though laudable in isolation, is accompanied by a significant escalation of what can only reasonably be termed a ground war in Iraq. And there’s nothing in the rhetoric coming from either the Prime Minister or the Department of Defence to indicate that the government has well-considered contingency plans for the various ways in which this conflict may develop, or even much acknowledgement of the massive complexity of the situation. Continue Reading

Liberals’ plan for Iraq & Syria will be unrealistic, unwinnable and unfinished

Image: An RCAF CF-188 Hornet refuels from a CC-150 Polaris over Iraq. In the background are white fluffy clouds and a blue sky. (Image credit: Department of National Defence)

Sources inside the Department of National Defence indicated to the press last Friday that the Liberal government’s long-awaited plan for Canada’s military operations against the so-called Islamic State (also known, derisively, as Daesh) will be revealed early this week.

While the specific details of the plan remain to be seen, a few things are already certain: it will be unrealistic, will feature no feasible path to victory, and will not address the main driving forces of the conflict in any meaningful way.

Bold claims? Perhaps. But how else to interpret the last four months of hyper-cautious prevarication on the part of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and his colleagues on this issue, their near-perfect silence on the escalation of Russian intervention in Syria or the mounting evidence of Turkish governmental collaboration with Daesh, their total unwillingness to justify their drawdown of fighter jets, their wilful ignorance of our “ally” Saudi Arabia’s involvement on both sides of the conflict? Continue Reading

CSE metadata scandal casts doubt on Parliament’s surveillance-oversight credibility

A protester holds a sign reading “Stop Watching All Of Us”. Below is a stylized eyeball, the pupil of which is a handprint held up in a “stop” gesture. (Image credit: Elvert Barnes/Flickr)

If you’re like most Canadians, you’ve never heard of the CSE.

CSIS? Sure, in a vague kind of way – they’re kind of like the Canadian CIA, right? (Not exactly.) But the Communications Security Establishment lacks the widespread recognition of its controversy-entangled American counterpart, the NSA.

Maybe you’ve heard of them? Or their most famous contractor? His leak of NSA documents got this country – briefly – talking about the CSE this time last year when it was revealed that the extremely secretive agency monitors tens of millions of downloads every day.

The CSE, like the NSA, engages in what’s known as “signals intelligence” – monitoring of phone calls and electronic communications. Unlike the NSA, which famously hoovers up whatever it can get its high-tech cybernetic paws on, regardless of the source, CSE faces some restrictions on its surveillance, the most significant of which is that it is not permitted to monitor the communications of Canadian citizens.

But it’s hard to exclude specific sources when you’re scooping up such massive amounts of information. In practice, CSE collects its intelligence pretty indiscriminately, and then it filters out, or “minimizes”, information pertaining to Canadian citizens.

Or at least that’s the idea. In practice, it turns out that CSE has not actually been doing such a good job at “minimizing” that information, and in fact shared it with Canada’s surveillance partners in four other countries for quite some time. Continue Reading

CSIS urges judge in B.C. terror case to let them present their evidence secretly

Image description: John Nuttall, a bearded white man with stringy brown neck-length hair, is in the passenger seat of a car, looking towards the driver (not pictured). Nuttall alleges that he was radicalized and pushed into violent jihad by a CSIS operative. (Image credit: RCMP/Project Souvenir)

Image description: John Nuttall, a bearded white man with stringy brown neck-length hair, is in the passenger seat of a car, looking towards the driver (who is not pictured). Nuttall alleges that he was radicalized and pushed into violent jihad by a CSIS operative. (Image credit: RCMP/Project Souvenir)

CSIS was back in court again last week fighting to keep the details of its involvement in a B.C. terror case under wraps, saying that a public examination of its behaviour would threaten national security and put lives at risk.

This is the second time this month that CSIS has requested an extraordinary closed-door session of the trial, with the media and public shut out. And this time, they went one step further:

[A] lawyer representing the Canadian Security Intelligence Service argued some of the information is sensitive enough to national security that part of the closed-door proceedings must also exclude both defence and Crown lawyers, with only intelligence agency lawyers and the judge present.

“Submissions would have to be provided on that basis or not at all,” Donaree Nygard told the judge in Vancouver.

“The circle of privilege must be maintained. … My client is willing to open up the privilege to your ladyship, but no further.”

This extremely unusual demand comes at a critical juncture of the ongoing trial of John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, who were found guilty last June of terrorist offences in relation to their plot to plant pressure cooker bombs on the grounds of the B.C. legislative building on July 1, 2013. Continue Reading

Liberals elaborate on their plans for C-51, and they’re not encouraging at all

Image: A hand holds a cardboard sign reading “C-51 IS TERRORISM – REJECT FEAR”

The shape of Liberal reform of C-51 is becoming increasingly clear, and as I predicted, it doesn’t meaningfully address the most important issues with the law. There are, however, the slightest glimmers of hope for anti-C-51 advocates – which I’ll get to after the doom and gloom, so as to leave you with at least a bit of optimism.

But first, the bad news.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, in his interview last week with the CBC’s Rosemary Barton (who, by the way, is to be congratulated for her appointment as permanent host of CBC’s Power and Politics after doing a fantastic job during last year’s election), gave some indication of what the Liberal approach to C-51 will be:

Goodale is travelling to London next week for meetings on counter-terrorism, violent extremism and cybersecurity. He will also be gathering information about United Kingdom’s Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament as he prepares to adopt a similar model for Canadian parliamentarians…

The Security Intelligence Review Committee, a civilian oversight body, will remain with an enhanced mandate.

Goodale said the government is committed to repealing key elements of the anti-terrorism legislation known as Bill C-51, including protecting civil protests and better defining “propaganda” and the expanded no-fly list. [my bold]

So, to recap: a parliamentary committee to oversee surveillance agencies, a beefing-up of SIRC, the protection of “civil” protests, and better definitions and parameters for “propaganda” and the no-fly list. Goodale also made clear that the Liberals would make good on a specific pledge to ensure that the law-breaking “disruption” that security agencies are allowed to engage in under C-51 would not include actions which violate people’s Charter rights.

That’s broadly in line with what I was predicting months ago, especially the tightly limited action on police/surveillance agency “disruption”, better known as legalized law-breaking.

But as more details emerge about the new oversight committee which is the centrepiece of the Liberals’s “reformist” agenda on C-51, I’m getting increasingly dour about the whole thing.  Continue Reading

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