It is, if nothing else, an interesting message about the power of information — and, on top of that, an example of tone.
The federal government, using security legislation enacted in 2001, plans to move officials from nine federal agencies — and two former agencies — into a security classification that wouldn’t only require them to keep their work secret long after they’ve retired from their jobs, but instead, keep it from the public eye forever, or else risk jail time.
According to a report by the Canadian Press, the employees would be added to the list of federal bodies covered by the Security of Information Act, legislation that carries a penalty of up to 14 years in prison.
If the proposed changes go ahead, the staff of the federal Privy Council’s foreign and defence policy secretariat, RCMP officers working with the force’s national security program, some federal Justice Department lawyers and employees of the office of the prime minister’s national security adviser will be added to the list of permanently gagged employees.
Tyler Sommers, a co-ordinator with Democracy Watch told CP, “Arguably this could affect society in major ways, because it’s going to prevent some information from ever coming to light. … Would this information cause harm to the public in five, 10, 20 or 30 years?”
And the scale of the reach of the legislation is already impressive: even before the changes, there are 12,000 federal employees whose contact with secret information is expected to stay with them in perpetuity.
You can, of course, understand the need for legislation that requires information to be kept secret: there are circumstances that demand secrecy, if for no other reason than to protect those who supply important information to federal officials, and to protect those who work in the Canadian security system to prevent terrorism.
But blanket legislation that halts the disclosure of information essentially forever raises some alarming questions, most notably because, some 25 years from now, most intelligence information will be essentially ancient history.
The simplest question is, what is it we are doing now that is so sensitive that the Canadian people can’t know about it — and can’t know about it ever? Eventually, the strategic value of any secret information erodes. The only reason to keep it secret after that is because it is either, at best, particularly unpalatable to Canadians or, at worst, edging close enough to the edges of legislation that it might be interpreted as illegal.
You could look at it from the viewpoint of poet Robert Service:
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.”
Having its own particular kind of midnight close over more and more federal intelligence workers should probably make our blood run a little cold as well.