There have been more than 10,000 incidents of classified or secure documents being improperly left or stored since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government came to office.
According to a document quietly tabled in the House of Commons, the highest number of incidents took place in Public Services and Procurement Canada, which reported 2,912 cases of documents not handled according to the security level dictated for the documents between Nov. 4, 2015, and Sept. 19, 2016. The Global Affairs Department was a close second with 2,712 incidents.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada’s spy agency, came third with 659 cases. The agency said 12 of the incidents were sent for further investigation.
It is not known whether any of the incidents led to security or privacy breaches. Nobody has lost their security clearance as a result of documents being handled improperly.
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The full extent of the incidents within the federal government is also not known. While the government’s answer to a question placed on the order paper adds up to 10,239 incidents, it did not include answers from either the Canada Revenue Agency or the Justice Department, which have thousands of employees who deal with a lot of sensitive files.
Twenty-four departments reported they had no incidents of mishandling secure or protected documents.
It is not known how the numbers compare with the number of incidents under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government. The question from Conservative MP Gord Brown only dates back to the day Trudeau’s government was sworn in.
Most of the incidents occurred within departments and agencies, the result of public servants doing things like leaving sensitive papers on their desk at night or forgetting to lock a filing cabinet.
Some of the incidents, however, took place in the offices of cabinet ministers.
Rookie Democratic Reform Minister Maryam Monsef led the pack with 11 incidents of classified or secured documents not being cared for properly. They were among the 161 incidents that occurred in the Privy Council Office.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office had six cases during the time frame covered by the government’s answer. In total, the Public Safety Department had 272 incidents.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s office had two incidents while one occurred in the office of MaryAnn Mihychuk, minister of employment, workforce development and labour.
One common talking point ran through the answers provided by departments — the government’s commitment to security.
“The government of Canada is committed to maintaining the highest standards of document security. Security infractions are identified as part of the National Security Sweep Program, which is an ongoing awareness measure designed to continually improve document security.”
While many departments provided little more than the numbers requested, some also supplied explanations.
Goodale’s response, for example, shed light on the kinds of lapses that led to the incidents.
“PS [Public Safety] records show 53 instances, since Nov. 4, 2015, where documents were found unsecured by security during evening patrols. For all instances where a document was left unsecured, the document was removed by security during the patrol and stored in a manner which met the requirements of the security level of the document until it could be retrieved by its owner.”
“PS records show 220 instances, since Nov. 4, 2015, where cabinets were found unlocked by security during evening patrols. For all instances where a cabinet was left unlocked, it is impossible to confirm if the cabinet contained any protected or classified documents. As per PS security protocol all cabinets were locked by security during the patrol to secure their content.”
In her response, Health Minister Jane Philpott, detailed what happens if an employee is found violating the rules.
“Should an infraction be discovered, the document is seized by security and responsible management is advised of the infraction,” wrote Philpott, who reported 81 incidents at Health Canada and 20 at the Public Health Agency of Canada.
“A notice of security infraction is left behind at the workstation indicating the nature of any discovered infraction. Training is provided in cases where there is a low rate of compliance.”
“Additionally, certain business areas are targeted for sweeps if high levels of non-compliance are detected or a blitz approach is deemed useful.”
While the Communications Security Establishment, which conducts electronic monitoring and surveillance, reported 491 incidents, it was quick to point out that its operations are carried out in a high-security zone and none of the documents left the building.
Critics, however, are concerned by the number of incidents since the Trudeau government took office.
Former Conservative Treasury Board president Tony Clement said cabinet ministers have to send a strong signal about the importance of handling classified and protected documents.
“We’re a G7 country, and when we do not handle these kinds of documents in the appropriate way it’s amateur hour. It might be a signal to our allies and our partners that we cannot be trusted. This is very concerning.”
Clement could not recall how many such incidents occurred when the Conservatives were in power.
NDP Treasury Board critic Daniel Blaikie questioned whether the problem was training or whether the problem was documents being needlessly classified as secret.
Either way, there are too many incidents, he said.
“It’s a shockingly high number.”
Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s the breakdown of classified document handling incidents by department