Secret documents: one reporter’s story

Cecil Rosner

Cecil RosnerLeaving secret memos and cabinet documents in unauthorized places has a
long history in Canadian politics. What’s unusual is that it continues
to happen with regularity.

My own experience with this
phenomenon occurred in November 1984, when I was covering provincial
politics for the Winnipeg Free Press. Then finance minister Michael
Wilson, in the newly-minted Conservative government, was making his
first Western swing, meeting with his provincial counterparts to
discuss, among other things, transfer payments.

Manitoba was
worried that it might lose $72 million in payments. But in his meetings
with provincial officials, Wilson assured them no decisions had yet
been made.

During the visit, Wilson held an impromptu press
conference in the lobby of Winnipeg’s Westin Hotel, just before heading
off to a luncheon speech.

He put a big stack of binders and
file folders on the coffee table in front of him and placed an ashtray
on top. When the press conference ended, Wilson left for his speech,
with a few dozen reporters in tow. The papers remained on the coffee

When all the rival media members were gone, I slowly
opened the files and saw a black book marked Secret. Inside were
confidential briefing notes to Wilson from his deputy minister, Mickey

It was one of those moments reporters seldom experience
— and never forget. Here was the finance minister delivering one
message publicly, while the briefing notes indicated that he was not
telling the full story.

Even though Wilson was assuring
Manitoba that no firm decision about transfer payments had been made,
his deputy minister was telling him not to raise the province’s hopes
about getting the money.

Finding the binders gave me a unique opportunity to test Wilson on the spot.

of the memos explicitly said that the cost of reviewing and raising
equalization payments across Canada would be about $1.3 billion, a
considerable sum.

After his luncheon speech, and before any of
his aides knew that I had read the briefing notes, I asked Wilson what
the cost would be. Hard to say, he replied.

Neither Wilson nor
his aides had any idea his files were missing. After more than an hour
of quietly reading the documents and taking notes, I informed the
minister’s assistants about the forgotten binders on the coffee table.

were very appreciative, until the next morning, when the contents of
the secret documents were splashed across the front page of the
Winnipeg Free Press. We debated the ethics of publishing the material,
but finally decided that papers abandoned in a public place were fair
game – especially since they touched upon such an important public

The Mulroney government was still enjoying a honeymoon
following its impressive election victory two months earlier. But
suddenly here was an issue the opposition could dig into.

hotel caper, as it was called, dominated question period for the next
three days. There were demands for the government to table all the
documents that I had found.

Mulroney said he didn’t know which documents they were, since he hadn’t “pilfered” them.

led then NDP leader Ed Broadbent to say: “It is a curious world when a
cabinet minister is so sloppy and careless to leave behind a document
that the prime minister accuses someone else of pilfering. It is a
strange government we have.”

It also prompted then Liberal critic Lloyd Axworthy to demand Mulroney apologize to me for the pilfering accusation. He did.

forward 20 years. I was teaching a course on investigative journalism
techniques where I was explaining how access to information laws
worked. Cabinet documents, I told the group, are secret for 20 years,
after which they can be accessed through a request.

had fervently defended Wilson during the whole episode and resisted any
calls that his minister should feel badly about what happened. It
occurred to me that I could finally see what really happened in cabinet
during the hotel caper.

So I requested the cabinet minutes for
December 1984, and sure enough, there was an item entitled: “General
Discussion: Security of Classified Material.”

“The prime
minister reminded cabinet of the importance that must be attached to
maintaining proper security of classified and other sensitive documents
by ministers,” the minutes said. “He underlined that this was a matter
of personal responsibility with particular care and prudence being
needed when ministers travel outside the National Capital Region where
facilities for safekeeping of documents may not be readily available.”

followed was a comprehensive set of instructions on how to keep
classified material secure. It included keeping material in locked
security briefcases when travelling and never removing cabinet papers
from Ottawa without the express consent of the Privy Council Office.

instructions also advised ministers never to discuss sensitive matters
on the telephone. “This lack of security is particularly acute in the
case of the mobile telephone, i.e., the radio telephone mounted in
private automobiles or staff cars.”

The cabinet minutes make for fascinating reading. They might also hold some valuable tips for present-day ministers.

Cecil Rosner is managing editor for CBC Manitoba and editor of J-Source’s Investigative Journalism area. He teaches investigative journalism at the University of Winnipeg, and is the author of Behind the Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada.

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