08 December 2008

Locking the barn door: prisons report version

The provincial justice minister released a report on Monday into the provincial prison system.

The hard copies handed out to reporters had sections blacked-out for various reasons. Those copies made it impossible to see the words that were redacted, to use the popular phrase.

The electronic version wasn't quite as effective.

Somehow, the blacked-out bits of the pdf didn't really remove the words. They merely masked them. As CBC discovered, if you copy the text and then paste it into any simple word processing software - like say Notepad - the words covered by the black boxes magically appear.

The original electronic version was available until after lunch. It's now been replaced by a version that has puts bits of punctuation in place of the excised words if you block copy the bits including the black redacted strips.

Never fear.

CBC has posted a copy of the report as it originally appeared so people can get the originally released version.

Inferring from context, it is possible to see in some instances that the excised sections of the report deal with security in the prisons.

Others are odd.

Like this bit from the second version released by the justice department:

One of the persons interviewed stated ------------------------------------------------------
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------, spoke of the
atmosphere of mistrust and stated that “the environment is such that you have to be
careful who you tell things to.” Several times during the Panel’s interviews with --
---------------------------- referenced what -- perceived to be the lack of support from
“the hill”, noting that he had files of documentation that would support --- claim.

Look at that last bit: "...referenced what -- perceived to be the lack of support from 'the hill', noting that he had files of documentation that would support --- claim."

"What [blank] perceived" and "would support [blank] claim" suggest that the words chopped here somehow make reference to an individual. Under section 30 of the province's access to information law, government can't disclose information on particular individuals in certain circumstances.

Now, we've seen already bizarre examples of how the government secrecy apparatus - D.B.A. "access co-ordinators" - interprets this section. Documents summarizing information already in the public domain were edited to exclude the name of a judge involved in a trial, for example. Information about public servants acting in their capacity as public servants are to be left in but people who aren't public servants are omitted.

This became clear in testimony by Renee Pendergast at the Cameron Inquiry on the issue. Pendergast is no average bureaucrat. At the time of the issues under review by madam Justice Margaret Cameron, Pendergast was the access co-ordinator for Executive Council. She's since returned to her usual job vetting access requests for the department of justice's access co-ordination section.

COFFEY , Q.C.: After the matter passed through - - while the matter was passing through your office , his name was redacted in relation to - - in a briefing note , a government briefing note referring to the fact that some matter was ... this particular matter was before him and the status of it at the time , and his name was redacted. Could you tell the Commissioner, please , what the rationale is that would have someone like Judge Thompson's name redacted in these circumstances from a Cabinet briefing note?

MS. PENDERGAST: And I realized that that name was done when we had done our pre - interview , and I can assure Madam Commissioner that that was done in error. His name would have been left in. I'm assuming it was because I really did not know who he was at that time , and I redacted it under those circumstances , but under normal circumstances , if I had realized who he was , his name would have been left in.

COFFEY , Q.C.: Can we actually bring up - -

THE COMMISSIONER : I'm sorry , did I misunderstand what you said earlier. I thought you were saying that even though it might seem frankly silly to some of the rest of us , your interpretation of the legislation was that if the information contained a name which was other than a civil servant presumably conducting their business , that would be deleted. So why wouldn't Justice...

MS. PENDERGAST: Because , I guess , we considered him for him to be a Judge at this point , and his name would be allowed to be left in. He wouldn't be considered to be a - - like , would he be affiliated - - and I'm not sure if he's a provincial judge or - -

THE COMMISSIONER : No , and believe me , he would not consider himself to be affiliated with the Department of Justice.

MS. PENDERGAST: . Yeah , yeah , so - - and I don't know that. That's the reason why chances were his name was released - - was withheld.

COFFEY , Q.C.: And just in relation to that because that was the way when Ms. Brazil was asking about it , you did indicate that , well , if the vetter as it were , in your position - -


COFFEY , Q.C.: did not understand that a particular name was that of a civil servant , then the name went?

MS. PENDERGAST: And we would double check some of them if we weren't sure , absolutely.

COFFEY , Q.C.: But - - that's the criteria , if it's not a civil servant - -

MS. PENDERGAST: It's withheld.

COFFEY , Q.C. : 23 Q. Withheld.


So in the section from the prisons report, this particular individual or individuals covered by the excised portion would be public servants speaking in their capacity as public servants.

Odd that their views are removed - odder still that it's only in part - and in that last sentence the clipping relates words that function as the subject of the verbs involved are also plucked out.

Maybe they were proper names, one might think, as in "Mr. Jones perceived" and "Mr. Jones' claim". If that was the case, then the word "he" that appears in between ought to have be chopped as well since that word also tends to identify the gender of the informant.

Read the CBC version using the Microsoft magic decoder and you discover that no proper names appear at all.

There's another head-scratcher in another section that deals with concerns among prisons staff about the lack of appropriate recognition given to a staff rowing team. The excised bit is completely mystifying since it contains no information on the security of the prison system, does not tend to identify third parties - i.e. people who aren't public servants - and generally just carries on the narrative of the issue which is left in. If problems with morale and the causes of said problems or irritants related to it are left in the document, it makes one wonder by what truly insane line of reasoning the excised bits were chopped.

Now the prisons report has more than enough in the public versions to give people cause for concern. The redaction weirdness comes - unfortunately for the current administration - at a time when their are renewed questions about its commitment to openness and transparency. They talked a good game while in opposition but, as the Cameron Inquiry and a recent set of articles in The Telegram show, the actual performance falls far short of the mark.

Some of the access problems may well have to do with bureaucratic inertia. Your humble e-scribbler has been lied to by one access official. In another case, in response to a simple request sent to obtain information in exactly the manner described by the government's own policy statements - low cost and informal - your humble scribe met with the request being shunted to the access co-ordinator who, in turn insisted that the request had to be made on the appropriate form and would be dealt with only after the appropriate fees had changed hands. That isn't government policy but the co-ordinator knowingly insisted on it merely as a means of frustrating a simple request.

In largest part though, one is tempted to point to the tone at the top as being the culprit. Public servants do not like to disclose information, as a rule. They like to find ways to hold things secret. That's a characteristic of bureaucracies the world over since the people in the bureaucracies know that information is power.

They are encouraged in the zeal for secrecy by episodes like the one in a tussle between the auditor general and the Premier over access to cabinet documents related to the cable deal. The Premier invented excuses to avoid disclosing the documents to the person he appointed to review the affair. He then relented, admitting in the process in effect that his earlier excuses were lacking in substance. later still, we saw the changes to the access to information that would - in effect - block members of the public finding out how much toilet paper the province's energy corporation buys at any given time let alone what contracts it enters into.

In the prisons report case, the government censors wound up locking the door long after the information horse had bolted. Nevertheless, their cock-up does give some insight into how the system works. Looking at the redacted version and the inadvertently unexpurgated copy of the report, one cannot see any obvious, legitimate reason for withholding any of the bits that were excised. If anything, the bits hidden under the black bands reinforce the points made throughout the report and left there for the public to see.

They were cut, though and the people of the province weren't supposed to see them.

You have to wonder why the decisions were made to chop those bits in the first place.

And if this is the sort of stuff they deem unworthy of telling you, you really have to wonder what else they are keeping secret.