Wednesday, September 20, 2006

On totalitarian tendencies

CTV and the Montreal Gazette confirm the Cons' paranoia and disregard for the law, reporting that the Cons are encouraging the disclosure of the names of Access to Information requesters in violation of the Privacy Act:
Federal government officials appear to be breaking Canadian law by revealing the identities of those who seek documents under the Access to Information Act, a newspaper reported Wednesday...

(T)he Montreal Gazette claims the identities of some requesters have been shared among government departments -- including the Prime Minister's Office.

Documents obtained by the Gazette under the Access to Information Act show that in one case, the name of a reporter about to receive documents under the act was revealed during a telephone conference call among federal government officials.

The reporter's name was disclosed by an official working on behalf of the Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Department, the Gazette reports.

The newspaper says documents show that officials from at least eight departments were involved in the telephone call and minutes of the meeting were sent to 19 other people -- including Stephen Harper's communications director Sandra Buckler.

Deputy information commissioner Alan Leadbeater told the Gazette there had been other cases of confidentiality violations --particularly when there was a concern that the information could result in embarrassing questions to a cabinet minister.

"We see situations where representatives from the minister's office will meet on a regular basis, sometimes weekly, with the access to information people to find out what access requests have been received and what material is being released, and in the course of those meetings there is a tendency to share with the minister's staff the identities of the requesters," Leadbeater was quoted as saying by the Gazette.
It isn't hard off hand to see some of the potential abuses resulting from disclosure of the identity of requesters - ranging from the Cons knowing which reporters may have damaging information and avoiding their questions, to having an advantage in Question Period by knowing which parties have been researching which issues, to knowing which current or potential government employees may be using requests to follow up on their own suspicions about what may be occurring within government departments.

It's tough to say which of those potential uses (or what other possiblilities) may be the greatest motivator behind the Cons' actions. But there should be little doubt that Con ministers wouldn't be systematically encouraging the illegal gathering of information, and the PMO wouldn't be micromanaging departmental Access to Information requests, if the Cons weren't planning on putting their illegally-gathered information to some use. And if the Cons are setting up an institutional culture which encourages the illegal disclosure of the identity of requesters, there's no reason at all to have any confidence that the information won't also be used illegally once it's acquired.

Just a few months ago, the Cons told the civil service to honour the spirit of the Access to Information Act. Now, it's clear that the Cons are themselves violating both the spirit of that legislation and the letter of the Privacy Act by wrongfully appropriating private information for their own purposes. Which means that if Canadians indeed want a culture of accountability, they'll have to start by taking away the Cons' ability to punish anybody who's interested in holding the government accountable.

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