Wow, what a turnout. I’m standing outside the Public Accounts committee room—which is currently still occupied by the Health committee, I believe—and I am far from the only one here.
There are at least a dozen or so people from National Defence—some uniformed, some just in suits—the Auditor General and her crew, various unidentified bureaucrat types, clerks, staffers, reporters and camera crews. No, that wasn’t a typo, there is more than one media outlet here. Who would have thought military blueprints turning up in an Ottawa trashcan would be so exciting?
Anyway, that’s why we’re all here, and it could be quite a show for the aficionados of advanced degree dodging.
According to the buzz in the corridor, apparently, the guys who actually found the discarded documents will be on hand as well, which isn’t really a surprise, since one of them—Anthony Salloum, a former NDP communications director—now works for the Rideau Institute. Which is invariably described as a “left-leaning” think tank, so far be it from me to break new ground. I doubt they mind, really.
Lots of pre-meeting mingling amongst the witnesses as the AG gets ready to deliver her opening presentation. She doesn’t seem to be prepared to deal with the case at hand—let’s call it the Blueprint Blunder, because I do like a little alliteration—but that won’t stop committee members from asking her about it.
The cameras have just been politely evicted from the room, which means the meeting is about to get underway. The chair—a Liberal; Shawn Murphy—gives a quick overview of the witnesses, from National Defence, Defence Construction Canada and, of course, the Auditor General.
Oh, and apparently, we’ve all got to be on our best behaviour, because in the audience is a delegation from Uganda—the Ugandan Public Accounts committee, in fact.
Just in case this turns into a circus, a quick note: Dear Uganda, Please don’t judge. Love, The Parliament of Canada.
And onto the Auditor General, who gives a quick summary of her initial findings on security policy for the construction of a NORAD building in North Bay, which left a little to be desired: no security requirements checklist; blueprints in the public domain; limited physical control of the building. But, she says, the department came back with an “action plan” to manage construction security, and a MOU has been signed. She calls it a “reasonable” response to the concerns raised in her audit, and hands the mic over to the deputy minister for defence, who doesn’t have a sign in front of him, so you’re out of luck as far as his name until I can borrow a copy of the meeting notice.
Fonberg! That’s his name—the Sign Guy just slipped a hastily printed placard in front of him.
Oh, you want to know what he has to say? Fine, fine. Reviews are continuing, the action plan is in place, everything is ticketyboo.
As for that unfortunate incident with the blueprints? The preliminary review showed that departmental and Treasury Board guidelines were followed, and there was “no requirement” for the documents in question to be classified. Nevertheless, he’s ordered a detailed review, and expects that to be complete by the end of the month.
He also, oddly, repeatedly apologizes for the “confusion” that apparently resulted from his—or the department’s, it’s not clear—testimony last time this subject came up, but I’m not sure what, exactly, he’s referring to.
Now, over to Defence Construction Canada, and Ross Nichols, who echoes the “all good here” message. He describes some of the steps taken in response to the AG’s report, but stresses that there are no ongoing security concerns.
With that, it’s onto the question round. First up: Liberal MP Charles Hubbard, who wants to know who in Defence was in charge of overseeing security at the North Bay site. The witnesses stare at him blankly, and eventually, one asks for a clarification. He repeats the question: Who—by rank—was responsible for the security? “I can see you looking at one another,” Hubbard notes. “Surely, there was someone in charge.” Surely … But apparently, no one at the table can give him a name.
Well, that was a somewhat less than impressive opening by the Defence guys. And that was only the first question.
After being tossed a 9/11-changed-everything lifeline by Hubbard, Nicholls enthusiastically confirms that the process has become much more stringent since 2001, as far as security; the NORAD building had been under construction since 1995.
Unfortunately, Hubbard isn’t out of questions. He notes that the contractor involved in the Blueprint Blunder told reporters that he didn’t think they were all that important. The Defence witnesses try to minimize the security implications, but Hubbard seems unconvinced.
Richard Nadeau picks up where Hubbard left off, and continues to press Fonberg, who insists there was “no flaw in the process.” He explains that at the time, there was no rule against throwing out unclassified blueprints, even though they may now think that would be a “good idea.” So this could happen again, Nadeau boggles. Actually, it has—Fonberg notes that after the initial blunder, another set of blueprints turned up under similar circumstances.
I wish I could see Sheila Fraser’s face right now.
Clearly, Richard Nadeau feels the same way. He asks the AG what she thinks of what she’s heard so far. She suggests it might be wise to review the situation earlier on, and perhaps consider classifying these sorts of documents.
Fonberg once again points out that there was no breach of policy because there was no policy on handling unclassified documents, and why he thinks that does anything to alleviate concerns I have no idea.
The Ugandans, meanwhile, are listening intently, and showing exquisite restraint by not snickering at our lackadaisical approach to security.
Perhaps having realized that the whole “we have no policy” argument lacked fortitude, Fonberg goes into a lengthy explanation of what has been done, as far as security.
John Williams sends me tumbling into deja vu by complaining that he doesn’t know what all these witnesses are doing here today—so many entourages, he notes, so many high-priced people (which is an odd way to describe bureaucrats and Defence officials)—since the committee looked into all this stuff “months ago.”
Which, if you’ll recall, was exactly what he said last month when they held a one-day hearing to look into those untendered contracts that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty handed out to former Mike Harris staffer Hugh MacPhie.
It’s weird; back during his days in opposition, I never heard him complain about going back over old news when new information came out.
Anyway, after asking a few questions about the action plan, Williams claims to be out of questions. He then hands the floor over to Brian Fitzpatrick, who goes into a downright weird tangent about the 9/11 attacks—the physics, not the politics, and the danger of a “crumpling” effect—before admitting that it seems to him that blueprints for this kind of facility wouldn’t be classified.
This prompts some hot-potato-tossing between the witnesses, who subtly try to lay the blame on someone—anyone—else for “missing” the blueprints, and allowing the material to escape being classified.
The NDP’s David Christopherson reminds the witnesses—and certain fellow committee members—just how the impetus for this meeting arose: they were in the middle of preparing a report on the AG’s initial review of contracting security when the Blueprint Blunder erupted, at which point they called the officials back to explain what had happened.
He’s suspicious of the delay in completing the “detailed” report that Fonberg is expecting by the end of the month, given that the committee would have already met, and once again tells the witnesses that as far as he’s concerned, it is emphatically Not Okay that blueprints that show every detail of the proposed counterintelligence centre were allowed to go astray.
Fonberg, who is doing his best to appear unrattled while one of his fellow Defence officers—a uniform—holds him in a fixed gaze, assures the committee that the review will be completed as soon as possible, and admits that he is “not unsympathetic” to the question being asked.
The blueprints in question, he notes, “were only 50% aligned” with the final design, at least as far as the electrical system.
Oh, here’s Fixed Gaze Man: LCol Dave Shuster, who—yes, you guessed it—assures the committee that there are no “present threats” as a result of the non-breach of the non-existent policy.
Mark Holland is up now—hey, what happened to Charles Hubbard?—and he’s confused. It’s not as though the failure to assess security is an anomaly, he notes—in 99% of the cases, it’s not done. He and Fonberg go a few rounds over whether this was a mistake. Fonberg isn’t willing to even go so far as to say that if the department could go back and make that decision again, that the documents would be classified. They might, but it isn’t certain, he tells Holland.
After another lengthy question from Holland, Fonberg hesitates for a moment—telling the committee he was “playing with his button”—before doing his best to evade a fairly basic question: is he concerned that these blueprints were left in a dumpster? The rather tortured answer is yes—and no. He, personally, is concerned, but since these were unclassified documents … Yeah, dot dot dot. We seem to be caught in an infinite loop.
Once again, Fraser reminds the committee that construction of buildings often gets underway without a firm idea of how it will eventually be used, which is why the blueprints are unclassified. Really? That doesn’t seem very efficient. Why are we just building random facilities for as-yet-to-be-determined purposes?
Mike Lake—a government member, which will immediately become apparent—echoes Williams’ lack of understanding of why this meeting is necessary, and then spends a few minutes shamelessly sucking up to the witnesses for having done such a good job responding to the AG’s concerns.
Wait, I may have gotten my witnesses confused earlier—in my defence, there are 11 of them around the table; one more, and the committee would be outnumbered. I think the guy speaking now is actually Dave Shuster, and he is delivering a painfully detailed explanation of how the department decides which documents are classified, and which are not.
Even Lake—who really wants to give National Defence a thumbs up—doesn’t seem to be able to grasp why the NORAD building wasn’t classified from the start, and Fonberg jumps in to say that it started as just a “shell”—walls, pipes and power, I guess—and, as all shells are, was unclassified.
Second round: Mauril Belanger, who asks whether it isn’t the case that most National Defence buildings require security classification, but Fonberg denies that’s the case. It’s actually a small fraction—most of the construction the department is involved in doesn’t involve secure buildings, but sidewalks, hangars, barracks—that sort of thing.
(Barracks aren’t secure?)
Really, I’ve never seen a pack of Defence officials so laissez faire about security, especially at a committee. Usually, they bring it up in response to every third question, although that may just be to get out of giving a thorough answer.
Belanger, incidentally, seems to be thinking along the same lines as me; he notes that the NORAD building will eventually be classified, so why not treat it as such from the beginning.
Government round, with David Sweet at the microphone: He, too, admits to being “puzzled” by the fact that even after 9/11, it took the Auditor General to force the department to tighten up its security policies. Sweet gives the witnesses every chance to agree that changes are needed, and Fonberg meets him partway, vowing to keep the matter in mind when dealing with the Treasury Board on changes to the existing process.
Sweet also asks whether our NORAD partners—i.e., the Americans—are satisfied with the current state of affairs, and the witnesses assure him that they are.
The lunch trays just arrived. A little bit after the fact, really—I’m not sure how much longer this meeting will go, since the government members are sticking to the “no need for any more questions here” line of defence.
The Bloc Québécois still has questions, though. Actually, it’s the same question that keeps being asked, over and over: Isn’t anyone alarmed by the lack of policy here? It’s not so much lack of alarm, but strategic downplaying of the issue to avoid getting dragged deeper into an embarrassing loophole, I think.
Brian Fitzpatrick rambles on for most of the Conservatives’ allotted time in the second round, praising every witness in sight, from the AG to the Defence officials, for their respective and collective hard work before clumsily eliciting mild agreement with his assertion that, maybe, not everything has to be classified, just for the sake of classification. He even suggests that it might be hard to find contractors willing to work on classified projects, because there is so much competition. “I know everyone would like perfect security, but this isn’t a perfect world,” he notes. Uh, yeah. What an—odd argument. And so uncharacteristic for the usually security-manic Conservatives.
And back to David Christopherson, who just referred to this as the Blueprint Blunder, which makes me wonder if I’ve heard it somewhere before, forgotten the source and am now attempting to claim it as my own on false pretences.
He isn’t the slightest bit impressed with what he’s heard so far, and he wants to know what they really think. “What kind of loose rules do you have around the contractors you hire?” He marvels.
Nicholls tries to mollify Christopherson but only succeeds in making him angrier when he admits that he hasn’t undertaken a review of the Blunder, even though it was his agency—Canada Defence Construction—that was responsible for the material.
Christopherson tells him that no one in Canada is buying his story—this is about “common sense,” not which box was ticked off on what form.
This, he tells the chair, is what is frustrating him—not a single witness is willing to acknowledge that something went very wrong, and that it can’t happen again.
Unbelievably, Fonberg warns against giving “false hope”—even with those new policies in effect, with 20,000 contracts underway, mistakes will still be made. Not surprisingly, this sends Christopherson into the stratosphere: “Unbelievable!” He interjects before apologizing to the chair.
Mauril Belanger is equally appalled but a modicum more restrained than Christopherson. He needles the witnesses on the length of time it seems to be taking to review the contracts before turning to the AG to find out if she has access to documents declared classified. Will she go check out the material deemed too sensitive for the committee to see? “I’ll … consider it,” she says, clearly nonplussed.
Meille Faille wonders whether the lost blueprints were ever found again, and—yeah, still no real answer, this time delivered by Glen Hines, the commander who will eventually control the headquarters.
With his tongue only slightly in cheek, the chair wonders whether there is that much “dumpster diving” in Ottawa, which finally cracks the Ugandans up, and Christopherson goes on a tear: this wasn’t just dumpster diving, he points out—these documents were visible, and clearly labelled as Defence material.
With that, the chair thanks the witnesses, and then gives John Williams an open mic to talk about how much we support the troops, before adjourning the meeting.