Anti-terrorism branch of public safety ministry dysfunctional prior to terror attacks, top secret probe finds
A poisonous work environment in the year leading up to attacks in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and Ottawa is revealed in 900 pages of government documents, much of it censored, obtained by La Presse under the Access to Information Act.
By: Vincent Larouche La Presse, Published on Sat. Sep 05 2015
In the year leading up to the terrorist attacks in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and Ottawa, the section of the federal public safety ministry in charge of anti-terrorism was completely dysfunctional because of a rotten work environment, according to a top secret investigation conducted by the former head of the RCMP at the request of the government.
A culture of fear, insults, lack of information sharing, internal fights, unwillingness to hear divergent opinions, favouritism, and the cleaning up of reports to make superiors believe that all was fine on the ground: that is the tale contained in some 900 pages of government documents, much of it censored, obtained by La Presse under the Access to Information Act.
The analysis is overwhelming: “Something is broken,” a high-level manager concluded during one meeting dedicated to the work environment.
Alarm bells first rang on April 17, 2014, six months before the attacks in the Quebec town of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and in Ottawa. The deputy public safety minister, François Guimont, received an anonymous letter at his Laurier Ave. office in Ottawa. It identified a series of problems within the National and Cyber Security Branch, a division of the ministry dealing mainly with the government’s anti-terrorism strategy and hacking. Some of the facts raised were censored in the letter obtained by La Presse, but it seems they all pointed to a toxic working environment.
The letter writer did not identify himself or herself out of fear of the reaction of certain managers in the department. “The future of the section is in your hands,” the letter concluded.
The deputy minister took things very seriously, the internal ministry correspondence shows. He ordered his subordinates not to embark on a witch hunt to reveal the whistleblower, but rather to concentrate on shining a light on the serious allegations that had been raised.
The ministry needed an outside investigator for the task, but it had to be someone who could be trusted to handle the ultrasensitive material dealt with by the division. “Because of the mandate of the section, the issues raised have the potential to have national security implications,” noted one manager handling the case.
They settled on Norman Inkster, a former head of the RCMP retired from the federal public service since the mid-1990s. The ministry gave him a budget, an office, and top secret clearance so he would have access to all the information necessary to carry out his mission.
It didn’t take long before he was bogged down in testimony that showed the gravity of what had been going on. “The current situation is, at best, unhealthy,” he indicated.
The comments he received during interviews with employees were nearly all negative. “The vast majority of the people interviewed expressed an opinion that the work of the section is/was a work experience that was particularly unpleasant,” he wrote in his report classified as “confidential,” which was largely censored before being released to La Presse.
The fear of reprisals for having protested or even for having expressed a professional opinion different from that of the boss seemed widespread.
“The section is far from being an environment where people feel free to say what they are thinking,” Inkster wrote, adding that many feared being left out of meetings, publicly denigrated, or losing their files if they dared to open their mouths.
A widespread perception of favouritism and of internal battles marked by an attitude of “us against them” was detrimental to the work of all the employees, they believed.
The people who confided in Inkster were also nearly unanimous in denouncing the lack of information sharing and the silos where people jealously guarded important information from their colleagues, even if it would have helped their work. Many employees denounced an “air of mystery” so pronounced that some were even uncertain of their mission within the section.
The “poor treatment” and general “negativity” seemed to have led to a loss of important competency in the area of national security, according to Inkster.
“It was reported that many highly qualified individuals quit the department to take on less significant and less important work just to escape a work atmosphere they could no longer tolerate because it was having an impact on their health and their relationships,” he noted.
Inkster also weighed in on a troubling allegation that an official report had been falsified, something that had been raised in the anonymous letter.
The matter proved to be unfounded; the report in question was factual. But the testimony collected during the investigation was judged to be troubling, all the same. Employees considered that, in general, the rewriting of reports by higher-ups altered or completely eliminated important points that should have been made public or brought to the attention of the government.
“Many of those interviewed declared that they had been told to ‘soften’ their language and others declared that they were told to change the way they expressed certain facts to give the impression their files were progressing more than they actually were,” Inkster noted. “We said that the documents were cleaned up. Those interviewed believed that it was an attempt to give the impression that all was going well when that wasn’t necessarily the case,” he wrote.
The documents obtained by La Presse show that the leadership of the ministry qualified the findings of Inkster as “troubling” and put in place an action plan to change the way things were done. The school of public service was called to the rescue to put the changes in place, and courses on workplace harassment were offered.
But Friday, the ministry refused to discuss corrections that have been taken or the impacts the situation might have had on public safety.
“We respectfully refuse your request for an interview,” replied spokesman Jean-Paul Duval, while clarifying that a plan had, in fact, been put in place to “improve the workplace culture and provide a better work environment.”
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney refused an interview request.
With the collaboration of William Leclerc
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