Time limit essential on government secrecy (Editorial)

No administration should escape the judgement of history

Reprinted with permission from The Vancouver Sun

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Monday, October 22, 2001



The Vancouver Sun

Over the past month, we've witnessed history in the making. None of us is likely to forget the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 or their aftermath.

And years from now, we'll want to look back on how we responded to this international crisis and reflect on the choices we made as a nation.

However, in a little-noticed section of the federal government's mammoth new anti-terrorism bill, it will make intelligent reflection much more difficult. Well down in the federal government's new anti-terrorism bill is an amendment to the Access to Information Act that would allow the attorney-general of Canada to prohibit the disclosure of any information pertaining to international relations, national defence or security.

On the face of it, such a provision is perfectly reasonable. While it may offend our naturally nosy instincts as journalists, we can appreciate that, at extraordinary times like these, the government should have the power to keep secrets about how it's fighting the war on terrorism.

What we have trouble with is that those secrets would stay secret forever. There is no provision in the legislation to declassify documents once they have been deemed a secret by the government -- not even decades later.

As John Bryden, a Liberal MP from Ontario and passionate advocate for more open government, explained in Parliament last week: "The attorney-general of Canada would be able to exclude information from public view forever with no review, no outside ombudsman or court. No one can see what it is doing . . . . That is terribly dangerous."

It is worth nothing that, under the current act, many "top secret" documents are made public eventually. Cabinet documents, for example, are subject to release under the act 20 years after they are produced.

That two-decade delay gives cabinet members the freedom to speak freely while allowing Canadians to eventually review how our governments made decisions.

The regular release of old cabinet documents has formed an important part of our historical record -- allowing us to learn why John Diefenbaker cancelled the Avro Arrow project and how Pierre Elliott Trudeau dealt with the FLQ crisis.

For example, a cabinet document released three years ago revealed that Mr. Trudeau told a cabinet meeting he made "a mistake" by thinking bilingualism could quell Quebec separatism -- an important part of the still-debated Trudeau legacy.

The decisions the government are making right now about how to fight terrorism are likely to be just as important and just as controversial.

And there will be important lessons to be learned -- about what went right and what went wrong.

It's unlikely that any decisions being made by the government today will still pose a security threat in 2021. (Unless the war on terrorism goes very, very badly.) But even if some documents are still sensitive two decades later, there are existing provisions in the Access to Information Act that are more than sufficient to keep them under wraps.

In times of national emergency, the federal government needs the power to keep some secrets from the public. But it shouldn't have the power to escape the judgment of history.

 Copyright 2001 Vancouver Sun

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