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Politics Proposed new rules would see cloak of eternal secrecy extended to 11 federal agencies

An RCMP cruiser sits by the gates of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Nov. 17, 2012.

Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

The prime minister's national security adviser, federal lawyers who work on terrorism cases and intelligence analysts in the Privy Council Office would be forever forbidden from discussing sensitive aspects of their work under proposed new rules.

The Harper government wants to pull the cloak of eternal secrecy over past and present employees of nine federal agencies and those who used to toil at two now-defunct branches.

They would join the more than 12,000 current and former federal intelligence officials already covered by Security of Information Act provisions forcing them to take the secrets of their most closely held work to the grave.

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A group that advocates a more open and accountable federal government called the blanket proposal "dangerously undemocratic."

"Arguably this could affect society in major ways, because it's going to prevent some information from ever coming to light," said Tyler Sommers, co-ordinator of Democracy Watch.

The Security of Information Act was quickly passed as part of a package of anti-terrorism measures following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

The law forbids discussion of "special operational information" including past and current confidential sources, targets of intelligence operations, names of spies, military attack plans, and encryption or other means of protecting data.

The penalty for revealing such information is up to 14 years in prison.

The government says individuals "permanently bound to secrecy" through special designation are held to a higher level of accountability than others under the secrecy law.

It means unauthorized disclosures are subject to penalty whether the information is true or not and even if it was obtained after the employee left a sensitive post.

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The new officials forever bound to secrecy would include members of the legal services units of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada's domestic spy agency, and the Communications Security Establishment, the electronic eavesdropping service.

It would also cover the little-known Privy Council Office employees of the foreign and defence policy secretariat, the intelligence assessment secretariat, the international assessment staff and the security and intelligence secretariat.

Others bound by the provisions would be the national security group of Justice Department lawyers, the national security program of the RCMP and the office of the national security adviser to the prime minister.

Finally, the rules would extend to two dissolved agencies: the office of the inspector general of CSIS – the watchdog axed last year by the Conservatives, and the office of the security and intelligence co-ordinator of the Privy Council Office.

The recently published federal proposal says the organizations that make up the security and intelligence community need to "ensure secrecy and project to others that they have the ability to protect the information entrusted to them."

The planned additions would allow the government to "provide additional assurances to its international partners and allies that special operational information shared with Canada will be protected."

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The measures would not override a designated employee's right to protection under whistleblowing procedures, the federal notice adds.

It says there would be "minimal impact" on the media, "which should not have access to special operational information without authorization."

Sommers questioned the notion of information being secret in perpetuity, saying it becomes less sensitive with time, thereby reducing the need to keep it under wraps.

"Would this information cause harm to the public in 5, 10, 20 or 30 years?" he asked.

The database of people bound to secrecy, maintained by CSIS, includes those automatically designated through their employment with a spy service or other listed agency.

Others are hand-picked by supervisors due to their access to "special operational information."

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Past and present employees of the RCMP, CSIS, the CSE and Foreign Affairs already top the list of people from more than two dozen agencies bound by the secrecy provisions.

The public has until early next month to comment on the new proposal.

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