Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Military worried bungled propaganda exercise would harm reputation

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“Good intent, questionable capability, poor execution,” explained then-chief of the defence staff Gen. Jon Vance

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The Canadian Forces worried the public would link its previous efforts to test propaganda techniques during the pandemic to a bungled exercise in which the military spread disinformation about rampaging wolves, according to newly released records.

Military officers worried the 2020 wolves training fiasco, combined with previous coverage in this newspaper about their efforts during the COVID outbreak to test new methods to manipulate Canadians, could have “the effect of undermining our credibility and public trust.”

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The October 2020 exercise involving fake letters about wolves on the loose, which caused panic in one community in Nova Scotia, was a propaganda test gone awry, generating embarrassing news coverage across Canada and in some U.S. media outlets.

Just as that incident was being reported by media outlets, a non-government group called the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project released details about the Canadian Forces spending more than $1 million on training on how to modify public behaviour. That training had been used by the parent firm of Cambridge Analytica, the company that was at the centre of a scandal in which personal data of Facebook users was provided to U.S. President Donald Trump’s political campaign.

In addition, this newspaper had reported months earlier, the Canadian Forces had tested new propaganda techniques during the pandemic and had concocted a plan to influence the public’s behaviour during coronavirus outbreak.

The various reporting set off alarm bells inside the military’s public affairs branch at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa, according to documents released under the access to information law.

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Col. Stephanie Godin wrote Brig.-Gen. Jay Janzen on Oct. 16, 2020 warning that since the story about the fake wolf letters broke “there has been a resurgence of media and public criticism regarding perceived nefarious IO/IA (propaganda) against the Canadian public.”

She also noted how then-army commander Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre contacted Laurie-Anne Kempton, then the assistant deputy minister for public affairs at National Defence. Eyre wanted to “discuss how the wolf letter issue could be removed from being conflated with” the $1 million training course on influence techniques as well as the previous articles on military pandemic propaganda plans, Godin wrote.

Eyre, later promoted to top soldier, also reassured then-chief of the defence staff Gen. Jon Vance that the wolf debacle “was a low-level initiative gone bad.”

The military had determined Canadian Forces propaganda specialists had forged a letter from the Nova Scotia government warning local residents that wolves were on the loose. But the letter, which was supposed to be used only for training, had somehow leaked out to the public, creating panic in the area.

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Vance replied to Eyre: “Good intent, questionable capability, poor execution.”

Despite knowing almost immediately the Canadian Forces was at fault for the wolf letter debacle, some inside Ottawa headquarters suggested trying to label the incident as a creation of “Russian disinformation,” according to defence sources.

On Oct. 15, 2020, a public affairs officer, based in Washington, passed a message to headquarters from a U.S. expert in Russian propaganda who claimed the wolf story coverage in this newspaper was suspect. The woman, whose name is censored from the records, suggested Russian disinformation might be involved, telling defence officials this newspaper had in the past “attacked the Canadian Forces in Latvia for working with Nazis.”

In fact, this newspaper has never reported any such information.

National Defence noted in an email Monday that the claims from the U.S. specialist don’t reflect the department’s views.

Concerns about Russian and Chinese disinformation have reached a fever pitch in western nations in recent years, with various militaries and spy agencies sounding the alarm over such activities.

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But western militaries and governments have also used claims of Russian disinformation in attempts to undercut media reports they don’t like.

When asked by the CBC in 2022 about a New York Times article that revealed Canadian special forces were operating in Ukraine, defence chief Eyre claimed the media were helping Russian disinformation efforts.

Canadian special forces, however, did not deny the New York Times reporting.

The Canadian Army noted in a statement Tuesday that it had made changes to make sure an incident such as the wolves training fiasco didn’t happen again. That includes improved oversight of psychological operations and clearly marking documents used for training.

David Pugliese is an award-winning journalist covering Canadian Forces and military issues in Canada. To support his work, subscribe: ottawacitizen.com/subscribe

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