Influence campaign sparks investigation
Canadian Forces told to come up with new rules for information operations
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.
Canada’s Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan provides a novel coronavirus update during a news conference in Ottawa in February.