EXCLUSIVE: Public briefing on Iraq mission went ahead despite hesitance from top military brass

Brig.-Gen. Mike Rouleau wrote he was concerned releasing too many details on the special forces' actions in Iraq could jeopardize his troops.
Brig.-Gen. Mike Rouleau wrote he was concerned releasing too many details on the special forces' actions in Iraq could jeopardize his troops. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA —Canada’s top military brass wanted to limit details about its anti-ISIS mission in Iraq, concerned that frequent updates would compromise the mission and troops, Global News has learned.

“We are incentivizing [ISIS] … if we continue with frequent and granular updates,” Brig. Gen. Mike Rouleau wrote earlier this year. “This will re-double [ISIS’] efforts to have contact on the ground in order to stimulate the national conversation to a point where we’re packed up and sent home.”

Just four months into Canada’s fight against ISIS, top military commanders dropped a bombshell during a tech briefing in which they told Canadians the special forces stationed in Iraq had come under “very direct machine gun fire.”

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READ MORE: Forget what government said —ask why anything was said, former CF member says

The public was stunned for two reasons: In announcing that Canadian Special Forces had been fired upon and, in turn, fired back, the understanding of the mission took a drastic turn. Until that point, Canadians were told the military’s involvement was strictly non-combat.

Secondly, the fact the military was saying anything at all had some military observers wondering what was going on — why had the military taken the untraditional step of saying anything at all?

Throughout the lengthy Afghanistan mission, for example, the Canadian Forces were always hushed about their actions; the public was aware the Joint Task Force 2 soldiers were performing missions, but had no access to specifics whatsoever.

READ MORE: Canadian special forces returned fire with ISIS in Iraq

So when news of the fire fight in Iraq reached the public, members of the opposition in the House of Commons slammed the Conservative government, accusing it of misleading Canadians.

Behind the scenes, news that they’d be telling the public about a fire fight during a tech briefing also set off alarms.

Emails obtained by Global News suggest military brass wanted to limit the information being released about special forces.

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READ MORE: Defence chief says Canadian soldiers still within non-combat mandate in Iraq

On January 23, Commodore Scott Bishop wrote an email referring to concerns among the top brass that providing too much information in terms of regular tech briefings could “impose” a “precedent or baggage.” But he made it clear the military wanted to at least appear to be fulfilling a pledge to remain transparent.

“Has any thought been given to putting these events into the public via a media release,” he wrote. “I think this would create the effect that the centre is seeking disclosure without the churn associated with a briefing. This also allows us to stay on message with our previously signalled intent with regard to media engagement.”

Despite the military’s concerns of incentivizing the terrorists, putting troops in danger and potentially setting a precedent in terms of military communication, it seems the Prime Minister’s Office and its bureaucratic arm, the Privy Council Office, wanted the tech briefing to go on.

READ MORE: No ground combat against ISIS, but mission parameters could change, Kenney says

“PCO advises tech briefing is on for Monday morning, dry run this afternoon,” an email sent on a Friday morning read.

Retired Col. Michel Drapeau said in an interview this was the first time he could remember the military publicizing the movements of special forces.

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“I find the whole thing theatre … It’s media posturing,” he said after going through the documents. “The whole subject is what type of image and what type of story are we going to be telling the media?”

The whole thing, Drapeau said, is an engineered image the Prime Minister’s Office wants in the public domain.

The fact the PMO had any hand in the matter is gravely concerning, said NDP defence critic Jack Harris.

READ MORE: After months of airstrikes, what else can stop ISIS?

“I’ve not heard of the PMO directly telling the Canadian Forces what to say,” he said Wednesday

“That’s normally [the military’s] job. They have plenty of public relations people, they know what not to say from an operational point of view. So for the Prime Minister’s Office to be controlling the messaging in this way, coaching people, I think this goes a bit too far.”

Through a written statement, the department said they were comfortable with the briefing and the fact new, limited information was being put out there. Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for the prime minister would highlight the fact that DND said they were comfortable.

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In one email it’s noted Rouleau is “ok with the format for Monday.”

READ MORE: Majority of Canadians back use of fighter jets to strike ISIS in Iraq

“Special Operations Forces operations are highly classified, and public discussions of their activities are typically difficult, as they contain information of an operational nature that would be of significant interest to adversarial forces if disclosed,” the spokesman wrote.

“However, given the significant national interest in the [Operation Impact] mission, considerable effort was devoted to providing as much information as could be disclosed that would help Canadians understand the context of an advise and assist mission.”

As for the fact the Prime Minister’s Office was involved, National Defence said that’s not unprecedented, going so far as to say it’s necessary.

“If Canadians receive conflicting information from different agencies … this can lead to confusion that is corrosive to our credibility, and can undermine their trust in public institutions.”

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