The main door to the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council Office is seen in Ottawa, Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Info watchdog raps Privy Council Office for terminating access requests from public

OTTAWA — The federal information watchdog has chastised the prime minister’s bureaucrats for shutting down several requests from a researcher without good cause.

In a series of decisions made public Tuesday, information commissioner Caroline Maynard reveals the Privy Council Office simply closed four Access to Information requests to avoid missing due dates.

In each case, the body that supports the prime minister was waiting for input from other federal agencies on whether Cold War-era intelligence records could be disclosed to Alan Barnes, who filed formal applications under the access law.

Maynard ruled the access act does not allow the PCO to fail to respond to an access request on the grounds it has yet to receive recommendations from consulted institutions.

She found, however, that the PCO officials who process access requests were instructed not to keep a file open past its due date because of the agency’s “no late file” policy.

Maynard said the practice explains head-scratching statistics reported by the PCO in its recent annual reports detailing access response times.

For instance, even though Maynard found many complaints from requesters about delays in the 2017-to-2019 period to be well-founded, the PCO reported that 100 per cent of requests were answered on time.

In the first of the four Barnes decisions, dated Oct. 14, Maynard expressed disappointment with the PCO, noting it is a central institution headed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has signalled “a commitment to transparency and openness.”

Maynard noted in her three subsequent decisions, all dated Nov. 9, that the PCO had since ended the practice of closing request files while consultations are outstanding.

Privacy considerations prevented the information commissioner’s office from identifying who made the access requests. But Barnes stepped forward Tuesday to voice concerns about the PCO’s actions.

“I was very disappointed in PCO’s response to these and other requests I have made,” said Barnes, a former PCO intelligence analyst who is now a senior fellow at the Centre for Security, Intelligence and Defence Studies at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

Barnes noted the reports on his complaints point out that, contrary to the PCO’s claims, the agency only initiated consultations with other federal institutions once the information commissioner began investigating his files.

“I am deeply disturbed that PCO would make a claim on four separate occasions that it knew to be untrue.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2021.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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