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Prime Minister's Office admits to security breach in posting videos of soldiers in Iraq

A Kurdish soldier sits in the background as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Jason Kenney visit members of the Advise and Assist mission, approximately 6 km from active ISIL fighting positions, 40 km west of Erbil, Iraq, on Saturday, May 2, 2015.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Prime Minister's Office was forced to admit to an embarrassing security breach after it published two promotional videos – designed to showcase Stephen Harper's recent tour of Iraq and Kuwait – that revealed Canadian Armed Forces members' faces and left them vulnerable to attack by extremists.

At first, the PMO strenuously denied it had done anything wrong Tuesday morning when reporters who had accompanied the Prime Minister on his trip pointed out the videos included the faces of Canadian military personnel on duty in Iraq and Kuwait, as well as those of Joint Task Force 2 – the elite soldier force that protected Mr. Harper.

The Conservatives immediately removed two videos from the PMO website but insisted the military had cleared all the images in the videos before they were posted. They said the Forces had raised no objections and that they intended to repost the videos in full after a second review.

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Eight hours later, the PMO reversed itself, issuing a brief mea culpa but saying little else.

"After a second review, it became apparent that two of the videos should not have been posted," Rob Nicol, director of communications for the Prime Minister, said in a statement.

"We regret the error," he said, noting the "safety of our troops is our number-one priority."

The slip-up is particularly mortifying for Mr. Harper, whose government lionizes the military and has styled itself as tough-minded on security, defence and the war on terror.

It threatens to overshadow his surprise trip to Iraq, during which he travelled to within six kilometres of the front lines in the battle with Islamic State forces and made a rally-the-troops visit to Kuwait, where more than 600 personnel support Canada's aerial combat mission against the jihadis.

Mr. Nicol refused to discuss the matter further but a source with knowledge of the issue said the military had not in fact screened and cleared all the images in the videos before they were posted.

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This source, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said it is the fault of the Prime Minister's Office that the Canadian Armed Forces were not able to screen all the video material before it was posted.

The PMO refused to say which images or video material violated security rules. There is also no indication that disciplinary action has been taken against anyone in the Prime Minister's Office or the military.

The two offending videos include an interview with Defence Minister Jason Kenney at a Kuwaiti air base where members of the Canadian air crew walk behind him, their faces clearly visible in the shots.

The second video is a wrap-up of Mr. Harper's trip to Iraq that includes the faces of Canadian special forces assisting the Kurds in Iraq, as well as those of the heavily armed Joint Task Force 2 soldiers.

General Tom Lawson, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said in a statement that the Forces had taken pains to ensure everyone involved in Mr. Harper's trip was well briefed on the rules regarding operational security.

He avoided any mention of whether the military was able to vet all the videos and images before they were posted but said the Forces in the end recommended two of the videos "not be posted." Gen. Lawson described the risk to Canadian Armed Forces personnel as low and said he does not believe any soldier needs to be withdrawn from Iraq or Kuwait.

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These videos were made by Mr. Harper's communications staff who call their production unit "24/7" and generate regular video roundups of the Prime Minister's activities. It's an effort to get around the mainstream media and reach voters directly with coverage framed exactly the way the Conservatives want it. The PMO has long declined to divulge how much its production unit costs, saying it adds no expense to the office.

From the very beginning of Canada's participation in the war against Islamic State jihadis, the military has gone to extreme lengths to prevent the identities of soldiers involved in the fight against the Islamic State to make their way to the Internet and the militants themselves.

Canadian media accompanying Mr. Harper on his trip to Iraq and Kuwait were repeatedly warned against publishing or broadcasting images that show the faces of Canada's soldiers. Reporters were required to sign two separate undertakings – one of them several legal-size-pages long – that spelled out restrictions on coverage.

Last October, the Department of National Defence barred journalists from interviewing or photographing Canadian military personnel departing for Kuwait, saying it was concerned for the safety of the troops and their families. The restrictions ended a long-standing practice of journalists chronicling the emotional farewells between Canadian Armed Forces members and their families.

Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani has more than once urged followers to attack Canadians over the government's decision to join the U.S.-led military coalition helping beat back the jihadi group.

In February, after killing a Jordanian pilot it captured, Islamic State offered cash bounties on other fighter pilots in Jordan, listing their names, ranks and the neighbourhoods where they lived.

Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie calls the PMO video slipup a "very regrettable mistake."

He said it potentially raises the risk [of attack], adding that these days the risk to the families is just as serious as the risk to soldiers.

Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair called the incident "a further example of Stephen Harper using this war for political purposes."

There are nearly 70 Canadian special-force soldiers in northern Iraq, advising Kurds battling Islamic State militants. There are another 600 troops in Kuwait supporting Canadian CF-18 fighters that are bombing the jihadist forces in both Iraq and Syria.

"He put in place strict rules to make sure we couldn't identify our troops over there and he's the first one to break those rules even if it means putting their lives in danger," Mr. Mulcair, leader of the NDP, told reporters in Quebec City.

Liberal MP Marc Garneau, a former Navy officer, called the security breach "an act of incredible stupidity" and said the Conservatives must hold someone accountable for the error.

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