Stephen Harper: Just how economical with the truth?

By: Sandford BorinsRobert Armstrong, a British cabinet secretary during the Thatcher years, once described his approach to answering questions at Parliamentary committees as being economical with the truth. My question is how economical with the truth Prime Minister Stephen Harper was when he answered questions in the House of Commons regarding Naftagate.Last week Toronto Star columnist James Traversreported that several of his sources said that the Naftagate memo was leaked by someone in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).The recipient of the leak was identified as Frank Sensenbrenner, a Republican lobbyist with close links to the federal Conservatives. I'm not surprised at Travers' conclusion: the PMO had the motive to leak – substantiating PMO Chief of Staff Ian Brodie's claims about the Democrats' position on NATFA – and the leak came soon after the memo reached the PMO.Assuming Travers is right, there are some interesting implications regarding Ian Brodie's and Prime Minister Harper's roles in the story. Brodie would not have leaked the memo himself, but he could have asked an underling to do it or an underling might have taken the initiative.To maintain plausible deniability, it is unlikely Harper would have explicitly asked what had happened, nor would he have been told.When the pressure was on Harper early last March to establish some sort of inquiry to investigate the leak, he chose Cabinet Secretary Kevin Lynch. If Harper had good reason to believe the source of the leak was the PMO, asking a public servant who reports to him to investigate was intended to make it unlikely the source of the leak would be found.The PMO consists of political appointees reporting directly to Harper and Lynch would have found it extremely awkward to finger someone there. A better alternative for finding out what really happened would have been to appoint a judge, who would be independent and not beholden to Harper.The report on the Naftagate inquiry does say that nine PMO officials were interviewed, including Chief of Staff Ian Brodie. It says that its interviews produced no evidence of irregularities or improper conduct by ministerial staff.But if the source of the leak was the PMO, the inquiry almost certainly interviewed the person who was responsible for the leak, and that person lied. A judicial inquiry, with testimony given under oath, might have yielded a different result.When answering questions in the House of Commons about Naftagate, Prime Minister Harper's consistent position was that “the government is trying to identify who was responsible for leaking the information to the public; it was not my chief of staff” (March 4, 2008).The following day, Harper said “What we are talking about here is a report that somebody in the consulate wrote to their superior. There are literally thousands of documents like this written around the world by Canadian officials. It is ridiculous to think that the Prime Minister's Office even ever sees these documents.”In general this is true, but in this case the Naftagate inquiry report told us that the document was in the PMO's hands by February 27, almost a week before Harper gave this answer. Harper's answer suggests to me he had at least an inkling of what had happened, but was being economical with the truth.

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