Emergency preparedness audit a state secret

A review of how the federal government’s nerve centre would fare during an earthquake or power outage is being kept completely under wraps.

OTTAWA — A review of how the federal government’s nerve centre would fare during an earthquake or power outage is being kept completely under wraps.

The internal audit of emergency preparedness at the federal Privy Council Office — the agency that serves the prime minister — was completed in May.

Audits of federal programs and policies are routinely posted on departmental web sites.

But not a single word of the Privy Council Office audit on emergency preparedness, and the ability to maintain operations in a crisis, is being made public.

Audit reports are examined under the Access to Information Act to prevent disclosure of secrets, noted Raymond Rivet, a PCO spokesman.

In this case, the agency relied on a provision of the act that allows it to withhold information about the vulnerability of buildings and systems, including computer networks. It is classified as information that, if made public, could provide valuable clues about how to plan a crippling attack.

Still, similar audit reports on Health Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency, and Justice Canada have been conducted and made public in recent years.

The access law includes a number of discretionary exemptions that allow government officials to deny release of records in order to protect national security, said Vincent Kazmierski, an assistant professor of law at Carleton University in Ottawa.

“However, courts in Canada have recently confirmed that such exemptions do not provide carte blanche power to refuse disclosure of entire documents just because they may include some sensitive information that should be protected,” he said. “Rather, government officials must always remember that restrictions on access are meant to be interpreted narrowly, and that they are obliged to release any information in the record that does not fall under the exemption.”

The refusal to disclose any part of the audit suggests “an overzealous application of the exemption in this case,” he added.

It seems unlikely that “every last word” in the audit report — including background information — would necessarily have to be withheld, said Fred Vallance-Jones, who teaches journalism at University of King’s College in Halifax. “So it strikes me that there may be some excessive secrecy here.”

Since there was no formal request for the Privy Council Office audit under the access law, there may be no way to challenge the decision to keep it confidential, added Vallance-Jones, who carried out a national freedom-of-information study for Newspapers Canada.

Rivet said the Privy Council Office does have contingency plans in place to respond to, and recover from, emergencies and other critical events.