Operations Security and the Public’s Need to Know
Prepared by Glennys Egan
March 10, 2011
Operations Security (OPSEC) is fundamental to the military. Important information regarding the activities of the Canadian Forces (CF) must be kept from the enemy in order to ensure the protection of Canadian soldiers and the success of Canadian missions. However, in recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of military personnel and politicians using OPSEC to justify keeping information from the Canadian public. The nature of withheld information has varied, and has often appeared to have little to do with the security of soldiers or missions. This has raised concerns that the term may be abused in order to maintain a ‘culture of secrecy’ in the military, at the expense of the Canadian public and democracy.
Organized by the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute in partnership with Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, this panel discussion addressed the tensions between the public’s need to know and the use of OPSEC claims to withhold information. Most of those in attendance were young journalists, seeming eager to learn about the restrictions placed on war reporting.
The discussion began with Sharon Hobson’s presentation of her paper “Operations Security and the Public’s Need to Know.” She acknowledged the importance of OPSEC, but expressed concern about the frequency and context in which it has been used to keep information from the Canadian public. Journalists are routinely denied information about the war in Afghanistan, leaving the public uninformed about Canada’s situation. Hobson argued that this has eroded Canadian democracy, as it is essential that the public understand the full ramifications of war if they are to form an opinion on it.
Hobson expressed concern about the nature of OPSEC claims, as commanders seem to have little discretion in its use. Information is often designated as classified in Ottawa, and military personnel on the ground are subsequently instructed to keep it from the press. Hobson noted that many of those on the ground she spoke with expressed frustration with this protocol. This highlights the use of OPSEC as a political tool rather than as a means to protect the CF.
Furthermore, Hobson proposed that OPSEC classification is being used not only for the security of CF, but in order for the government to keep embarrassing information from its opposition, the media and the Canadian public. For example, the government has been reluctant to release certain information about the proposed purchase of F-35 stealth fighters, claiming that it compromises OPSEC. Hobson noted that the same degree of secrecy has not been witnessed in other military purchases. She questioned the relevance of OPSEC in the case of the stealth fighter purchase, speculating that information has been withheld in the interest of the Harper government rather than for the safety or integrity of the CF.
Hobson concluded by making a number of recommendations for the future application of OPSEC. She proposed that OPSEC must be redefined in order to be used more precisely. She suggests that commanders on the ground should be granted discretion in their use of OPSEC, rather than have restrictions placed from Ottawa. She also called on the military and DND to resist political pressure to withhold information that is potentially embarrassing for the government, to ensure that OPSEC is used only when necessary. Additionally, she called on the media to challenge the military in the face of overzealous applications of OPSEC. Her final statement was bold, as she condemned Harper for attempting to wage a ‘Secret War’ by using the excuse of OPSEC to intentionally discourage discussion about the military and the war in Afghanistan.
Sharon Hobson has been the Canadian correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly since April 1985. She also writes a regular column for Canadian Sailings and Canadian Naval Review, and has written occasional features for the Financial Post, Ottawa Citizen, and Canadian Defence Quarterly. She is co-author with Vice-Admiral Dusty Miller of a book on the Canadian Navy in the Persian Gulf War, The Persian Excursion, which was published in April 1995. In 2004, she won the Ross Munro Media Award for Defence writing.
Lieutenant-Colonel J.M.C. Lemay offered a military perspective of OPSEC, seeming somewhat sceptical about Hobson’s full grasp of ‘risk’ in the military. He highlighted the importance of OPSEC, but also stressed the need for Canadians to be informed about the situation in Afghanistan. He spoke of the importance of building a network between journalists and the military, in order to work together to ‘get as much information as possible to the public.’ Lemay and Brewster’s amicable rapport throughout the discussion exemplified this relationship between military and media.
Lemay explained a number of situations in which OPSEC should be appropriately applied, noting that when used correctly the policy can be vital in protecting the CF. He suggested that the war in Afghanistan is different from conflicts Canada has encountered in the past, and the military is still learning how to deal with its enemy. This includes exploring the ways in which certain information can be used by the Taliban. Thus, it has changed the ways in which OPSEC has been applied, especially with the increasing scope of social media in today’s world.
However, Lemay suggested that Ottawa’s increasing control over the use of OPSEC has been detrimental to its integrity. He affirmed Hobson’s argument that officers on the ground need more discretion in order to apply OPSEC according to real-time considerations rather than to serve Ottawa’s political agenda.
Though Lemay refrained from commenting specifically on the political considerations of OPSEC, he maintained that it must be used only when necessary. He suggested that misusing OPSEC as a justification to keep information from the public is disrespectful to the soldiers risking their lives in Afghanistan. The public must not be oblivious to the horrors of war overseas.
Lieutenant-Colonel J.M.C. Lemay is presently serving as Canadian Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM) Chief Public Affairs Advisor in Ottawa and is a graduate from the Joint Command and Staff Program at CFC Toronto. Previously he held different PA positions as Director Army Public Affairs at NDHQ, as CF Joint Headquarters’ (CFJHQ) Sr PAO in Kingston. He has served overseas with CF on many occasions to IFOR, Bosnia, Eritrea/Ethiopia, FYROM, and as Deputy-Coalition Press Information Centre in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2002. Lemay holds a BA in Military Strategic Studies and Military Psychology.
Murray Brewster began his discussion by stating that the decision to go to war is the “most important decision made by a country,” and therefore the public needs as much information about it as possible. He accused the Harper government of attempting to ‘sanitize’ reporting about the situation in Afghanistan, noting that in 2006 journalists were even discouraged from using the word ‘war’ when writing about it. Brewster passionately echoed Hobson’s concerns about the erosion of democracy when information is withheld from Canadian citizens.
Drawing on his extensive experience reporting from Afghanistan, Brewster affirmed Lemay’s explanation of the importance of OPSEC in many contexts. However, he believes that the use of OPSEC should be restricted only to “not getting people killed.” He said that it ‘crosses the line’ when journalists are prohibited from reporting what is happening overseas – especially when it could have embarrassing political implications.
Brewster argued that OPSEC restrictions have routinely been applied in cases that have nothing to do with security of the CF. Interestingly, he notes that even information to which the Taliban is privy has been kept from the Canadian public. Furthermore, Brewster noted that rather than finding appropriate ways to release potentially sensitive information, the government has instead opted to prevent its release entirely.
Brewster suggested a number of implications that the misuse of OPSEC may have, but particularly stressed what he considers “the most important element:” Canadian soldiers feel as if they have not been recognized for their work. Brewster noted that those who make decisions about OPSEC “don’t have to look those soldiers in the eyes.” He expressed fears that Canadians are supporting a war they know very little about.
To conclude, Brewster stated that putting more thought and trust in the relationship between journalists and the military would allow Canadians to better understand the war in Afghanistan. When challenged by an attendee on the conflict of interest in journalists being embedded in the military, Brewster responded emotionally. He claimed that it was necessary out of concern for the security of journalists, echoing Lemay’s advocacy of ‘networking’ between the military and media in order to provide as much information as possible to the public. As Hobson argued, Brewster suggested that OPSEC must be redefined in order to serve no purpose other than saving lives – not saving face for the Harper government.
Murray Brewster is the Parliamentary defence reporter and senior war correspondent for The Canadian Press news agency. Whether in Kandahar, Ottawa, Washington or elsewhere, his by-line has appeared more often in relation to the war in Afghanistan during the last four years than just about any other Canadian journalist. Throughout his 26 year career in journalism, Brewster has received 11 RTNDA awards, two Atlantic Journalism Awards and was a finalist in the prestigious Michener Awards for public service in journalism. In 2010 he won the Ross Munro Media award for defence writing.
Glennys Egan is an intern at the Rideau Institute. She is currently finishing her degree in Human Rights and Political Science with a concentration in International Relations at Carleton University.