Vice-Admiral Mark Norman’s legal team questioned in an Ottawa court whether the top staffer in Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office used specific phrasing or code words to refer to the senior military official in internal communications to avoid detection.
Defence lawyer Marie Henein asked witness Zita Astravas, Mr. Sajjan’s chief of staff and former director of issues management in the Prime Minister’s Office, at length about what information she and Mr. Sajjan disclosed in response to a subpoena.
Vice-Adm. Norman was suspended as the military’s second-in-command on Jan. 16, 2017, and charged last year with breach of trust for allegedly leaking government secrets in an attempt to influence cabinet’s decision on a $700-million shipbuilding contract with Quebec’s Davie shipyard. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Defence lawyers have been trying to obtain thousands of government documents related to the case, some of which they believe will exonerate their client, but say they have met constant challenges as the government drags its heels.
Ms. Astravas was in the PMO from November, 2015, until the summer of 2017, and confirmed in court that Vice-Adm. Norman’s case is one she dealt with.
Ms. Henein asked whom she dealt with in the PMO – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford? Ms. Astravas said only that she dealt with all senior personnel on all matters.
Ms. Henein asked whether she dealt with Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary Gerald Butts on the issue. Ms. Astravas said she could not recall.
The senior staffer confirmed when questioned that she has two cellphones: a government-issued BlackBerry and an iPhone.
She said she did not search her personal iPhone and its contents to retrieve documents and neither did Mr. Sajjan, saying she took direction from the Department of National Defence to search the contents of government devices. She said she did not know whether her BlackBerry messages on her work phone were searched.
Ms. Henein later pressed Ms. Astravas about specific phrasing, asking whether she ever sent a BlackBerry message or used her iPhone to communicate about Vice-Adm. Norman by referring to him as “a certain naval officer,” or a “certain naval fellow.”
Ms. Astravas responded only that she could not recall.
Vice-Adm. Norman’s defence lawyer also asked Ms. Astravas whether she recalled sending messages to colleagues at National Defence or in the PMO about delaying the trial, to which Ms. Astravas said “I don’t think so,” later saying she does not remember.
Robert MacKinnon, a Justice Department lawyer, later confirmed in court that all searches for correspondences should include personal devices.
Ms. Astravas’s testimony comes after two days in court that saw the defence present a document obtained through an Access to Information request that showed some in the military used acronyms and abbreviations in correspondences relating to Vice-Adm. Norman.
Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance in his testimony on Wednesday said they are not code words, but common acronyms and jargon used in the military.
The defence team filed the access request after a witness, whose name is protected by a publication ban, alleged in a court proceeding last month that the military used code names, making it difficult for anyone to request the documents, including Vice-Adm. Norman’s lawyers.
The defence team said when it filed the access request, Mr. Sajjan’s office claimed exemption, and so it subpoenaed Ms. Astravas to question her over her involvement.
Once Ms. Astravas left the courtroom, Ms. Henein asked that Ms. Astravas’s personal iPhone be preserved for searches in response to subpoenas, saying it is a priority as the defence is expected to bring forward an abuse-of-process motion in March.