In­flu­ence cam­paign sparks in­ves­ti­ga­tion

Cana­dian Forces told to come up with new rules for in­for­ma­tion oper­a­tions

Cape Breton Post - - CANADA - DAVID PUGLIESE

OT­TAWA - The Cana­dian Forces has been told to come up with rules gov­ern­ing its plans to in­flu­ence the pub­lic af­ter what mil­i­tary in­sid­ers de­scribe as a pro­pa­ganda cam­paign was able to pro­ceed with­out proper au­tho­riza­tion dur­ing the coron­avirus pan­demic.

In ad­di­tion, a sep­a­rate in­ves­ti­ga­tion has been launched to de­ter­mine whether a team, as­signed to a mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence unit, il­le­gally col­lected in­for­ma­tion from the pub­lic’s so­cial me­dia ac­counts dur­ing the pan­demic.

Flo­ri­ane Bon­neville, the press sec­re­tary for Min­is­ter of De­fence Har­jit Sa­j­jan, called the unau­tho­rized plan a “mis­take” and noted the min­is­ter has ordered Chief of the De­fence Staff Gen. Jon Vance to as­sem­ble a team made up of le­gal, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and pol­icy staff, to in­ves­ti­gate what hap­pened. “A re­view of ap­pli­ca­ble poli­cies will be com­pleted by the CAF and DND to make sure this kind of si­t­u­a­tion never hap­pens again,” she added.

Rec­om­men­da­tions will be made “that will in­form sub­se­quent ef­forts of the De­part­ment of Na­tional De­fence and Cana­dian Armed Forces ac­tiv­i­ties in the in­for­ma­tion en­vi­ron­ment,” Bon­neville said.

The cam­paign, which called for “shap­ing” and “ex­ploit­ing” in­for­ma­tion, was de­signed to al­low the Cana­dian Forces to main­tain or­der dur­ing COVID-19 and con­vince the pub­lic to fol­low gov­ern­ment di­rec­tions. It was a com­bi­na­tion of tra­di­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tions meth­ods, us­ing pub­lic af­fairs staff, in ad­di­tion to “in­flu­ence ac­tiv­ity” spe­cial­ists and var­i­ous tech­niques to get mil­i­tary and gov­ern­ment mes­sages across to the pub­lic.

If nec­es­sary, mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles with loud­speak­ers would have been used. The Cana­dian Forces was also ready to set up por­ta­ble ra­dio sta­tions, which were used in Afghanista­n, to pro­vide the mil­i­tary with an out­let to com­mu­ni­cate in ar­eas where in­fra­struc­ture was lack­ing. “Vil­lage as­sess­ments” would be con­ducted through­out the coun­try and meet­ings would be set up with Cana­dian re­li­gious lead­ers and non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions, the in­for­ma­tion oper­a­tions plan noted.

Vance put a halt to the scheme af­ter find­ing out about it. He cited con­cerns it went too far into the realm of pro­pa­ganda. Mil­i­tary of­fi­cials have pointed out the plan re­lied on tac­tics sim­i­lar to those used dur­ing the Afghanista­n war to con­vince vil­lagers not to sup­port the Tal­iban.

Sa­j­jan was kept in the dark about the plan and was only briefed by se­nior lead­ers when this news­pa­per be­gan ask­ing ques­tions sev­eral weeks ago about the in­for­ma­tion cam­paign.

A sep­a­rate in­ves­ti­ga­tion is fo­cused on whether a team as­signed to mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence broke any laws when it mon­i­tored and col­lected in­for­ma­tion from peo­ple’s so­cial me­dia ac­counts in On­tario. Those be­hind the Pre­ci­sion In­for­ma­tion Team, or PiT, main­tain there is noth­ing un­usual about hav­ing staff as­signed to mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence col­lect de­tails about com­ments the pub­lic are mak­ing on top­ics such as COVID-19, the state of long-term care homes in On­tario, and con­cerns raised by res­i­dents in Bri­tish Columbia about for­est fires in the Ama­zon.

In­for­ma­tion col­lected in­cluded com­ments made by the pub­lic about the Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure in On­tario in tak­ing care of the el­derly. That data was turned over to the On­tario gov­ern­ment, with a warn­ing from the team that it rep­re­sented a “neg­a­tive” re­ac­tion from the pub­lic.

Bon­neville said one of Sa­j­jan’s top pri­or­i­ties is pro­tect­ing the pri­vacy of Cana­di­ans.

There is an on­go­ing de­bate in­side na­tional de­fence head­quar­ters in Ot­tawa about the use of in­for­ma­tion oper­a­tions tech­niques. Some pub­lic af­fairs of­fi­cers, in­tel­li­gence spe­cial­ists and se­nior plan­ners want to ex­pand the scope of such meth­ods in Canada to al­low them to bet­ter con­trol and shape gov­ern­ment in­for­ma­tion the pub­lic re­ceives. Var­i­ous ideas have been pro­posed, in­clud­ing hav­ing Cana­dian Forces per­son­nel dis­trib­ute gov­ern­ment-ap­proved mes­sages on their per­sonal so­cial me­dia ac­counts. Those who pro­posed such an idea ar­gue that tech­nique could be used to dom­i­nate dis­cus­sion in Canada about par­tic­u­lar top­ics, in­clud­ing po­lit­i­cal is­sues, on so­cial me­dia plat­forms.

Oth­ers in­side head­quar­ters worry such in­for­ma­tion oper­a­tions could lead to abuses, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary staff in­ten­tion­ally mis­lead­ing the Cana­dian pub­lic or tak­ing mea­sures to tar­get op­po­si­tion MPs or those who crit­i­cize gov­ern­ment or mil­i­tary pol­icy.

The fact Sa­j­jan wasn’t kept in the loop on the in­for­ma­tion oper­a­tions plans has also raised ques­tions about whether there are ad­e­quate con­trols and ac­count­abil­ity gov­ern­ing such ca­pa­bil­i­ties, they add.

The in­for­ma­tion oper­a­tions plan, put for­ward by the Cana­dian Joint Oper­a­tions Command, was never ap­proved by Vance. Nei­ther was there any ap­provals from the Judge Ad­vo­cate Gen­eral which is the mil­i­tary’s le­gal ad­vi­sor, the As­sis­tant Deputy Min­is­ter for Pub­lic Af­fairs or var­i­ous other se­nior com­man­ders.

REUTERS

Canada’s Min­is­ter of Na­tional De­fence Har­jit Sa­j­jan pro­vides a novel coron­avirus up­date dur­ing a news con­fer­ence in Ot­tawa in Fe­bru­ary.

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