Military leaders saw pandemic as unique opportunity to test propaganda techniques on Canadians, Forces report says.
The federal government never asked for the so-called information operations campaign, nor did cabinet authorize the initiative developed during the COVID-19 pandemic by the Canadian Joint Operations Command, then headed by Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau.
But military commanders believed they didn’t need to get approval from higher authorities to develop and proceed with their plan, retired Maj.-Gen. Daniel Gosselin, who was brought in to investigate the scheme, concluded in his report.
The propaganda plan was developed and put in place in April 2020 even though the Canadian Forces had already acknowledged that “information operations and targeting policies and doctrines are aimed at adversaries and have a limited application in a domestic concept.”
The plan devised by the Canadian Joint Operations Command, also known as CJOC, relied on propaganda techniques similar to those employed during the Afghanistan war. The campaign called for “shaping” and “exploiting” information. CJOC claimed the information operations scheme was needed to head off civil disobedience by Canadians during the coronavirus pandemic and to bolster government messages about the pandemic.
A separate initiative, not linked to the CJOC plan, but overseen by Canadian Forces intelligence officers, culled information from public social media accounts in Ontario. Data was also compiled on peaceful Black Lives Matter gatherings and BLM leaders. Senior military officers claimed that information was needed to ensure the success of Operation Laser, the Canadian Forces mission to help out in long-term care homes hit by COVID-19 and to aid in the distribution of vaccines in some northern communities.
Then chief of the defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance shut down the CJOC propaganda initiative after a number of his advisers questioned the legality and ethics behind the plan. Vance then brought in Gosselin to examine how CJOC was able to develop and launch the propaganda operation without approval.
Gosselin’s investigation discovered the plan wasn’t simply the idea of “passionate” military propaganda specialists, but support for the use of such information operations was “clearly a mindset that permeated the thinking at many levels of CJOC.” Those in the command saw the pandemic as a “unique opportunity” to test out such techniques on Canadians.
The command saw the military’s pandemic response “as an opportunity to monitor and collect public information in order to enhance awareness for better command decision making,” Gosselin determined.
Gosselin also pointed out CJOC staff had a “palpable dismissive attitude” toward the advice and concerns raised by other military leaders.
The directive for the propaganda plan was issued by CJOC on April 8, 2020, but it took until May 2 of that year before Vance’s order to shut it down took effect.
There is an ongoing debate inside national defence headquarters in Ottawa about the use of information operations techniques. Some public affairs officers, intelligence specialists and senior planners want to expand the scope of such methods in Canada to allow them to better control and shape government information that the public receives. Others inside headquarters worry that such operations could lead to abuses, including having military staff intentionally mislead the Canadian public or taking measures to target opposition MPs or those who criticize government or military policy.
The Canadian Forces had to launch an investigation after a September 2020 incident when military information operations staff forged a letter from the Nova Scotia government warning about wolves on the loose in a particular region of the province. The letter was inadvertently distributed to residents, prompting panicked calls to Nova Scotia officials who were unaware the military was behind the deception. The investigation determined the reservists conducting the operation lacked formal training and policies governing the use of propaganda techniques were not well understood by the soldiers.
The plan would have seen staff move from traditional government methods of communicating with the public to a more aggressive strategy of using information warfare and influence tactics on Canadians. Included among those tactics was the use of friendly defence analysts and retired generals to push military PR messages and to criticize on social media those who raised questions about military spending and accountability.
The initiative to change military public affairs strategy was abruptly shut down in November after this newspaper revealed details about the plan. A military investigation determined what the Canadian Forces public affairs leadership was doing was “incompatible with Government of Canada Communications Policy (and the) mission and principles of Public Affairs.” None of the public affairs leadership was disciplined for their actions.