Military campaign to influence public opinion continued after defense chief was shut down

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Parts of a military information campaign intended to influence the Canadian public during the COVID-19 pandemic continued to operate months after the then Chief of Defense Staff ordered it shut down at the time. Spring 2020, CBC News has learned.

The Canadian military recently conducted four reviews of controversial initiatives. A copy of one of these reviews was obtained by CBC News under freedom of information legislation.

This review shows that even after Jonathan Vance, then Chief of the Defense Staff, verbally canceled the Global Influence Campaign in April 2020, some influencing activity targeting Canadians continued for another six months – until Vance issued a written edict in November. 2020.

“Public affairs, [civil-military cooperation] and influence the activities that were taking place, especially within [Joint Task Force Central], did not stop “, indicates the summary document, which looked at the origins of the influence campaign.

The conclusion of the review is important as Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan assured parliament last year that activities were halted almost immediately after they started. But a variety of problematic initiatives continued for months after Sajjan’s statement, including a propaganda training exercise involving fake wolves in Nova Scotia.

The review document seen by CBC News found that public affairs personnel and members of the military’s Civil-Military Cooperation Section (CIMIC) did not grasp the “ambiguity” and did not saw the “obvious connection” between what they were doing and what Vance considered a violation of federal rules.

The Acting Chief of Defense Staff, Lieutenant-General. Wayne Eyre listens to speakers during a Canadian Army change of command parade on Parliament Hill Tuesday August 20, 2019 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press)

According to a directive issued Wednesday by the Acting Chief of Defense Staff, Lieutenant General. Wayne Eyre and Sajjan’s Deputy Minister Jody Thomas, the military deployed propaganda techniques in Canada without approval during the pandemic and gathered information about the online activities of Canadians without permission from authorities.

Eyre and Thomas’s directive concedes that the military went too far.

“Despite the best intentions of some members, mistakes made during national operations and training, and sometimes island mentalities at different levels, have eroded public confidence in the institution,” reads the signed directive. by Eyre and Thomas on June 9.

Eyre sent the directive to key military and civilian leaders on Wednesday after CBC News asked the Department of National Defense (DND) why the results of the reviews – all completed at different times in the past seven months – still had not made public.

DND has said it needs time to collectively review the results and will release all findings in the “coming week.”

This time coincides with the summer recess of Parliament – and the conclusions of the reviews could get lost in the noise of a fall election, if an election is called.

DND insists it did not use “psyops” on Canadians

The Ottawa Citizen first reported on the directive Thursday and wrote a series of groundbreaking articles on the Canadian military’s use of information operations during the pandemic.

The military is authorized to conduct psychological operations when deployed overseas, but is prohibited from doing so in Canada without specific authorization from the federal cabinet.

DND insists that the activities undertaken to monitor and shape public discourse with respect to the pandemic were not psychological operations.

In fact, DND denies that it used psychological warfare techniques, perfected during the war in Afghanistan, against Canadians. But the line between psychological warfare and IO campaigns has become increasingly blurred in recent years.

The directive signed by Eyre and Thomas reminds commanders that “no national military operations” in the information environment should be directed against Canadian citizens.

“Minimal and rushed” consultation

The review document obtained by CBC News indicates that the Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC), which was headed by Lieutenant General. Mike Rouleau in April 2020, “liberally interpreted” departmental policy. The unit decided it had the power to conduct information operations on Canadians without government approval because the government had asked it to help respond to the pandemic.

Military healthcare workers prepare for patients at a mobile health unit at Sunnybrook Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)

The review document states that instead of obtaining permission from DND or Vance, CJOC “freely interpreted” a policy on information operations in Canada.

The review document concludes that CJOC consultation was “initially minimal and rushed”. He says it was only after the concerns were raised by the Assistant Deputy Minister of Public Affairs personnel that the unit consulted with people elsewhere at DND headquarters. When the case was brought to Vance, he shut down operations, according to the review.

Even though CJOC information operations were halted, CJOC’s order to initiate operations “allowed a chain of problematic decisions and activities at lower levels that damaged the reputation of DND and the CAF”, indicates the directive.

The reviews found that information operations were conducted on Canadians without approval and that “unauthorized” reports were produced in an attempt to monitor the activities of Canadians online.

The Ottawa Citizen reported last year that a specialized intelligence team had scoured social media accounts in Ontario, saying it was to help the work of military personnel in long-term care homes hit hard by the pandemic. Data obtained through this work has been shared with the Ontario government, the newspaper said.

“In addition, the teams violated requirements by not performing risk assessments prior to conducting Internet activities and they collected information on Canadian citizens without our explicit instruction,” the directive says.

Wolf crying

The military launched another investigation after a reserve unit specializing in information warfare conducted a September 2020 propaganda training exercise in Nova Scotia involving a fake letter warning of wandering gray wolves.

An image of a gray wolf captured by a surveillance camera in Saskatchewan. There are no gray wolves in Nova Scotia, although a fake letter warned residents that the animals had been released into the community. (Parks Canada)

The military apologized and called the exercise a mistake – but even though it was a mistake, it was a psychological operation used on Canadians to influence their state of mind . Many Nova Scotians believed the wolves were free and the provincial Department of Lands and Forests had to respond publicly, saying the warning was false.

“These reviews again found that members and leaders lacked formal training, that policies governing PSYOPS were not well understood and that adequate controls were not in place for this type of training,” indicates the directive from Eyre and Thomas.

The directive says “it is clear” that various IO tools deployed by the military in Canada “suffered from a lack of institution-wide direction” to ensure that the authority and appropriate oversight are in place.


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