Competing narratives about what Vice-Admiral Mark Norman may — or may not — have done wrong emerged Wednesday with the release of heavily redacted court documents that accuse the military's second-highest ranking officer of leaking a cabinet decision to a Quebec-based shipyard.
The RCMP search warrant, which had been sealed on the grounds of national security, was ordered released in a blackout form after the Globe and Mail challenged it.
Norman was suspended without explanation in January, but a series of leaks over almost three months have suggested he was being accused of leaking cabinet secrets.
Details in the RCMP's search warrant suggest senior officials at Chantier Davie, a company that builds ships, received documents revealing that the Liberal cabinet had paused the $668-million project to supply the navy with an interim supply ship. The RCMP's theory on how Davie got those documents is not revealed in the unredacted portions of the court documents.
The records go on to claim the information made its way through a high-profile Ottawa lobbying firm to the media, which broke the story on Nov. 20, 2015 — one day after the cabinet committee called a temporary halt.
The RCMP accuse Norman of breach of trust under the Criminal Code, as well as wrongful communication of information and allowing a cabinet document to be released, both contrary to the Security of Information Act.
The allegations have not been proven in court and Norman has not commented.
Just prior to the release of the court documents, email exchanges between Norman and a friend were released to some media. In the emails, which CBC has verified with a source, the career military man said he was considering resigning over the cabinet decision, something he believed was heavily influenced by the politics of the new Liberal government.
"I can't keep playing along much longer," Norman said in the email, dated Nov. 21, 2015. "The blatant politics of this (and too many other similar files) is just beyond what should be reasonable."
The emails do not point the finger at any specific cabinet minister, but lay out Norman's belief that Irving Shipbuilding Inc. — a rival to Chantier Davie — was determined to kill the interim supply ship project, which was approved in the waning days of the former Conservative government.
The RCMP search warrant shows, among other things:
- A staffer in Treasury Board President Scott Brison's office flagged the potential cabinet leaks the day the first story appeared after reviewing an email from an Ottawa lobbyist.
- Norman was under covert surveillance by the RCMP months before they raided his home in January of this year.
- Similar raids were carried at the Davie shipyard and the offices of two Ottawa lobbying firms.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the case in New York on Thursday and declined comment.
One of the cabinet leaks went to a CBC News reporter, who has since left journalism and is now a senior policy adviser in Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's office.
The 2015 story by James Cudmore alleged — additionally — that Irving Shipbuilding may have had a hand in convincing cabinet to halt the project, which at that point in time would have had disastrous consequences for Davie's financing. It references a Nov. 17, 2015, letter sent by James Irving to Sajjan and Public Works Minister Judy Foote, which argued for a pause and consideration of Irving's rival supply ship proposal.
"We understand that a contract for Davie Shipyard to provide the Interim Refuelling at Sea capability is awaiting approval by the new government," said the letter, which was released as part of the RCMP court document package. "I ask your support to request that the Irving-Maersk proposal be competitively evaluated before a contract is placed."
The effect of the leak on cabinet was swift and electric.
Brison, who is also a Nova Scotia MP, told RCMP investigators he'd never seen such a breach of cabinet confidences or secrets.
"It [the leak of classified information] impacted our ability to do our work," Brison said, according to the documents. "The rendering of this [classified information] into the public did an awful lot to limit our ability to really do what we'd [the committee] intended to do, and that is more due diligence."
However, a military expert, who has written a book on access-to-information law, said the Mounties, investigating an information breach, may themselves have inadvertently disclosed secret cabinet information by including Brison's statement.
"Out of prudence, I know if I would have looked at the documents, I would have removed that as being part and parcel of a cabinet confidence," said retired colonel Michel Drapeau, who edited documents for secrets during his time at National Defence.
Also, he says the question of how Irving knew that cabinet was about to deliberate the Davie project is a matter of concern.
"They obviously had an inside knowledge, a knowledge that was privileged," said Drapeau. "Their comments — in of itself — the essence of it — is cabinet confidence."
Irving denies interference
The president of Irving Shipbuilding issued a statement Thursday putting distance between the Halifax-based company and the RCMP investigation of Norman. Kevin McCoy restated opposition to the Davie proposal and denied suggestions of interference.
"At the time of the letter we understood that no final contract had been awarded and we wanted to ensure that the new government had all relevant information prior to making a final decision," he said.
Speaking on background late Thursday, a company official said Irving was not aware of the specifics of the Davie contract, but simply knew that the details had not been finalized.
On Parliament Hill Thursday, Brison said Norman's name did not come up in his interview with the RCMP, but underlined the importance of the policy issue.
"We take defence procurement very seriously as a government and our defence procurement committee is very active on all these files," said Brison.
A spokeswoman for the defence minister declined to comment, except say to say Sajjan had full confidence in the decision of the chief of defence staff to suspend Norman.
The RCMP did not answer a request for comment and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale repeated the government's line that it would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation.
Norman's lawyer, Marie Henein, also declined to be interviewed.