More than 12,000 current and former federal intelligence officials must take the secrets of their most sensitive work to the grave, newly obtained records show.
The number of people "permanently bound to secrecy" is more than double the figure expected in 2003 when the government began putting the provisions in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Security of Information Act – quickly passed following the dramatic assaults on the United States – updated several elements of Canada's antiquated legal regime covering classified information.
The secrecy 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 information.
Revealing such information could result in up to 14 years in prison.
Notes prepared by the Treasury Board Secretariat say individuals forever bound to secrecy 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.
The database of people bound to secrecy, maintained by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, includes those automatically designated through their current or past employment with a spy service or other listed agency.
It also covers federal employees and contractors selected for inclusion due to their access to "special operational information."
The Canadian Press obtained records under the Access to Information Act that indicate the officials sworn to secrecy are spread among more than two dozen agencies and departments.
The RCMP, CSIS, the Communications Security Establishment – the government's electronic eavesdropping agency – and Foreign Affairs top the list.
The secrecy designation is meant to send a stern signal to the intelligence community, said Stuart Farson, an adjunct professor of political science at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
"It's really there to try and keep the system under wraps," he said. "It's part of developing a consciousness of security about sensitive information, and making sure that you only discuss particular information on a need-to-know basis. My own view is there are very few actual secrets."
The new information about those bound to secrecy in Canada comes amid debate over the ongoing WikiLeaks release of confidential U.S. notes written by American diplomats around the globe.
It is believed the cables in question were widely available within the U.S. intelligence community. That left former CSIS director Reid Morden wondering how such a leak could be prevented.
"If you've got however many thousand people on a secret distribution list, can we be surprised that somebody's going to spill the beans?" he asked.
Despite the Security of Information Act provisions for individuals like himself, Mr. Morden suspects it would take the disclosure of a genuinely damaging secret to trigger a prosecution.
"In today's world of YouTube and Facebook and so on, I think despite whatever any given act says you have to keep to yourself, very few people actually believe you have to keep everything to yourself any more," he said.
The federal circle of those bound to secrecy has likely expanded to include people outside the traditional intelligence community – such as special advocates involved as counsel in sensitive court cases, said Craig Forcese, a University of Ottawa law professor. He wonders how people without a lifelong allegiance to the security world will deal with the notion of perpetual secrecy.
"If you're not part of the team, and you're not part of that culture, you might start chafing under these constraints," he said. "So I think it's going to be really complex for these people in a way that's not complex for the person who goes into the CSIS office every morning."
List of officials bound to secrecy under the Security of Information Act, by agency or department
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada: 25
Auditor General: 4
Canada Ports Corporation: 1
Canada Post Corporation: 105
Canadian Space Agency: 5
Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women: 1
Canadian Corps of Commissionaires: 31
Canadian International Trade Tribunal: 14
Canadian Security Intelligence Service: 3,168
Communications Security Establishment: 2,015
Finance/Treasury Board Secretariat: 5
Foreign Affairs and International Trade: 568
Health Canada: 10
Justice Canada: 47
Library and Archives Canada: 1
National Defence: 9
National Research Council: 3
Privy Council Office: 3
Public Works and Government Services: 18
RCMP (Parliamentary Precinct): 1
RCMP ("A" Division Special Events): 2
Royal Canadian Mint: 10
Science and Technology Canada: 1
Solicitor General of Canada: 7
Statistics Canada: 1
Transport Canada: 39
Not Identified: 254
The Canadian Press
Source: Canadian Security Intelligence Service