Flood of security-related complaints overwhelms staff of info watchdog

Canada’s information watchdog has been flooded with fresh complaints that the Harper government is too often citing security to withhold documents requested under the Access to Information Act.

OTTAWA — Canada’s information watchdog has been flooded with fresh complaints that the Harper government is too often citing security to withhold documents requested under the Access to Information Act.

Suzanne Legault says that since April, her office has seen a surge in such complaints — prompting her to ask for more specially trained investigators.

“I have observed a worrying trend in the number of new complaints of this type in the past four months,” Legault wrote in August to Tony Clement, president of the Treasury Board.

“So far this fiscal year, we have received 107 new special delegation (security related) complaints, amounting to 80 per cent of the average number of incoming complaints that my office has previously received over the course of an entire year.”

Legault said the problem has been growing over the last five years, but has become acute this year.

She has asked Clement to increase the number of her investigators who have special security clearance to probe these complaints, to 12 people from the current eight.

“I believe that this increase is necessary in order for my office to deal with this year’s increase,” she said in an Aug. 21 letter to Clement, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Clement’s office, which oversees the access-to-information system, has not yet responded.

A spokesman for the minister, Aaron Scheewe, said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on any direct communications with Legault.

The issue arises from two sections of the Access to Information Act that safeguard information obtained in confidence from a foreign state or group of states, such as the G8, and that protect the conduct of international affairs or the defence of the country.

The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, prompted a spike in the use of these exemptions to withhold information under the Access to Information Act.

Legault’s comments suggest a resurgence in the use of these exemptions — Sections 13 and 15 of the Access to Information Act — to prevent the release of security-related documents.

Emily McCarthy, assistant information commissioner, said the growing number of these cases is just one aspect of a striking rise in complaints from Canadians this year.

“We’re really seeing an explosion in our inventory” of complaints, she said in an interview.

The largest number of complaints are about delays, fees and missed deadlines, McCarthy says.

In the first six months of this fiscal year, the number of complaints is almost 40 per cent ahead of the same time last year. The office currently has 378 security-related complaints either in process or awaiting investigation.

Numerous critics have assailed what they see as the growing transparency deficit of the Conservative government, which first won office in 2006 partly on an election promise to improve access to information.

Legault has said the system is rapidly deteriorating, with departments routinely failing to meet legislated timelines in the release of information, and some institutions — such as the RCMP — refusing even to acknowledge the receipt of requests, much less respond to them.

“I am seeing signs of a system in crisis, where departments are unable to fulfil even their most basic obligations under the Act,” Legault told a closed-door meeting of bureaucrats last month.

Clement has countered that no previous government has released more material under the Access to Information Act, and that requests are becoming more complex.

Under the Access to Information Act, every resident of Canada can request records from the federal government for a $5 application fee.

More than 40,000 such requests are received each year, many of them subject to exemptions and long delays.

The information commissioner acts as a watchdog, investigating complaints and occasionally taking the government to court, though she lacks order-making powers. Almost 1,600 complaints were received in 2012-2013.

The office currently has 41 people in its investigations unit, eight of whom have been given special security clearance by the RCMP to probe sensitive government files.

Increasing the number to 12 would require an amendment to the Access to Information Act.

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