OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kept a safe distance Thursday from fresh revelations about a closely guarded national secret: the intrigue behind the suspension earlier this year of the Canadian military's second in command.
Newly released court documents show that the RCMP requested a warrant in early January to search Vice-Adm. Mark Norman's house for evidence to support allegations that top-secret information had been illegally leaked.
Asked about the new details during a news conference in New York, Trudeau demurred, just as he has done from the outset — but he also hinted at the obvious: that the cloak-and-dagger saga will end up in court.
"I support the chief of the defence staff in the decision that he took (to suspend Norman)," Trudeau said.
"This is an important matter that is obviously under investigation, and will likely end up before the courts, so I won't make any further comments at this time."
The RCMP request was part of a months-long investigation into how details of a secret Liberal cabinet meeting in November 2015 were passed on to defence lobbyists and the media.
During that meeting, Liberal ministers decided to push pause on a controversial project to convert a civilian ship into an interim resupply vessel for the navy.
The Conservative government had awarded the $700-million project to a Quebec City shipyard without a competition after the navy's previous two resupply vessels were forced into early retirement.
The request to search Norman's house came after the RCMP had already interviewed several senior Liberal cabinet ministers as well as influential Ottawa lobbyists about the alleged leak.
In his Jan. 4 request for a warrant to search Norman's house, RCMP Corp. Matthieu Boulanger said there were "reasonable grounds" to believe there had been a "breach of trust by a public officer," a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
A heavily redacted copy of Boulanger's search-warrant request was unsealed by an Ottawa court on Wednesday following a formal request by the Globe and Mail.
No charges have been laid against Norman, who was abruptly suspended without explanation on Jan. 16 by defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance.
The government has also refused to say anything beyond what Trudeau said Thursday, as well as that the matter was unrelated to national security.
Norman's lawyer, Marie Henein, said in a statement in February that the 36-year military officer "unequivocally denies any wrongdoing."
The court documents show the RCMP investigation started after then-CBC radio reporter James Cudmore reported on Nov. 20, 2015 that the new Liberal government had put the interim ship project on hold.
Liberal and government officials were particularly concerned that Cudmore's report included key details from a secret cabinet committee meeting the day before in which that decision was made.
Boulanger writes in his search-warrant request that the contents of the meeting were protected by cabinet confidence "and should not have been public knowledge.
"Cudmore's article clearly demonstrates a source privy to the discussions held during the committee meeting disclosed the confidential information to an unauthorized person after the committee meeting."
Cudmore left the CBC two months later to become a policy adviser for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
RCMP officers subsequently interviewed Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Treasury Board President Scott Brison, both of whom said the leak had affected the ability to do their jobs.
Brison is quoted as telling the Mounties that the news report "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 on this."
The court documents show that the Liberals' decided to pause the project amid intense backroom lobbying by Halifax-based Irving Shipyards and its Quebec City rival, Chantier-Davie.
The Conservatives had entered into an agreement with Quebec City shipyard Chantier-Davie in July 2015 after asking industry for ideas on filling the gap caused by the early loss of the navy's two resupply ships.
But emails obtained by the RCMP show Davie officials were worried in November 2015 that the new Liberal government would pull out after Irving urged several cabinet ministers to reconsider its proposal.
The RCMP obtained the emails with search warrants against Davie and two Ottawa lobby firms it had hired for the project, Hill+Knowlton Strategies and Fleishman-Hillard Canada, as they sought to trace how the secret information was leaked.
The emails, which were submitted to the court, show Davie officials John Schmidt and Spencer Fraser and lobbyist Brian Mersereau of Hill+Knowlton planning to fight back against Irving.
That included, in Schmidt's words, trying to "put pressure on Brison," whose department holds the government's purse strings.
"The only thing I can think of is we sic the media and or the union on Duclos and force him to call Brison," Mersereau wrote on Nov. 18, 2015, referring to Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos.
The Liberals ultimately decided to leave the shipbuilding project with Davie after it was revealed that the government would have to pay Quebec City shipyard $89 million if it was cancelled.
The interim resupply ship is expected to be delivered this fall.
Davie spokeswoman Marie-Christine St-Pierre said the company could not comment on the investigation as it did not know specifics.
The uncensored portions of the court documents do not specifically say what if any link there is between Norman, Davie or the two lobbying firms.
But personal emails leaked to several media outlets this week indicate Norman was extremely frustrated in November about the way the government and bureaucracy were handling the project.
Norman, who was head of the Royal Canadian Navy at the time, even talked about resigning over the issue, but instead stayed on and took over as vice-chief of defence staff in August 2016.
Norman's lawyer has suggested the naval officer is in danger of being caught in a "bureaucratic crossfire."
"He has at all times served his country honourably and with the sole objective of advancing the national interest and the protection of Canada," Henein wrote in February.
— With files from Jim Bronskill
— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press