Editor’s Corner article

Jeopardizing Hearts & Minds
CHRIS MacLEAN  |  Jul 23, 2020

Democratic societies value the right to free speech and, by extention, the right to peaceful demonstration – or so I thought. It is becoming evident that someone at DND believes differently. A very disturbing report by David Pugliese published in the Ottawa Citizen on 20 July, revealed a shocking military contingency plan related to communications (propaganda) designed in part to deter the Canadian public from “participating in Civil Disobedience” if necessary.

When the Chief of the Defence Staff learned of the Information Operations Annex initiated by Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC), he gave directions to cease. It’s easy to see why. 

Clearly, General Vance recognizes the numerous ethical issues involved when personnel associated with ‘influence activities’ in support of military intelligence begin tracking Canadians’ social media posts in a domestic context. Info Ops are used on deployed combat operations, and it is shocking to hear of that capability being used for a domestic requirement. As the military spokesperson made clear, the initiative went ahead without asking for higher approval including from the CDS or the Minister. 

Many things are deeply troubling about this revelation: One, that anyone at CJOC thought a goal in which “Canadian public compliance with suppression measures is reinforced” was something to be pursued. Two, that staff who work covert information activities against external enemies like Daesh would be used for communications activities beyond the existing, trusted media relations. Three, the military term “Information Operations” refers to operations in a combat theatre, why is it being used to describe a domestic operation?

In the follow-up Citizen report on 21 July we learn that the Precision Information Team (PiT) searched publicly-available social media to identify sources of unrest and head off social “disobedience” particularly related to the COVID pandemic. Seriously?

This “concern” that the public could erupt into violence, and therefore Canada must have options to suppress such an uprising, is nothing short of baffling. As highlighted in our article on Op Laser, CAF members were cleaning and feeding and helping elderly residents, and alleviating staff shortages – what “message control” could possibly be required? 

What purpose would require a group of military operators to pursue a plan to suppress or “shape” opinions? It seems totally incongruous with any transparent military objective that I can imagine. In any case, should the state of public perception at home be a CAF tasking? Methinks some ethical boundaries are being stretched.

Interviewed by the Citizen, Rear-Admiral Brian Santarpia, who until recently was Chief of Staff at CJOC, said military leaders don’t want to “constrain” the initiative exhibited by the young keeners on the Team. Seriously? Considering that neither the CDS nor the Minister were aware of this initiative, what, if any, oversight exists? If there’s one thing these young operators need, it’s direction and clear parameters. Whoever those reticent leaders are, they should pay more attention.

It is incumbent upon elected leaders to listen to concerns that may lead citizens to protest, but does that include (a) tracking social media accounts and handing such data to politicians? (b) military intervention? Indeed, does the government even have the moral authority to quell non-violent protest with either force or propaganda?

Until the Citizen reports, I had never considered that military tactics could be turned on our own citizens. This is not the way to win hearts and minds... but who among us ever thought they’d hear that term directed at the very citizens CAF members are sworn to protect?

Who’s idea was this? The questions keep piling up. The last thing we need are Canadian versions of a Mark Esper telling commanders to “dominate the homeland battlespace,” or a Trump calling in federal forces on non-violent civilians – and to think otherwise does not bode well for Canada.  

Stay Tuned.

Chris MacLean