Government withheld documents on Turkish lobbying for arms export permit

Files show PCO did not expect media coverage of lobbying efforts and provided more heavily redacted documents to Parliament than to the press, after initially denying they had any relevant records
Photo: Erdoğan and Trudeau among the NATO leaders who gathered in Brussels back in 2017. (NATO / Flickr)
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Internal government documents obtained by Ricochet reveal ongoing discussions between the Canadian government and a representative of a Turkish weapons manufacturer shortly before the Trudeau government approved the export of sensitive drone technology to Turkey last year — technology that later showed up in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, helping tilt the balance in favour of the latter, Turkey’s ally.

Overall, the documents depict a government primarily concerned with relations with its NATO partner Turkey, as well as with the commercial confidentiality and business prospects of its arms industry. They also show that the government expected no media scrutiny of its decision, with one official commenting “the process is not public.”

When Canada later attempted to obtain information about the drone targeting equipment’s actual use in conflicts abroad, the Turkish government stonewalled.

The humanitarian situation on the ground is scarcely mentioned over more than 400 pages. Previous Ricochet reporting has noted Canada’s announcement of aid funding for people affected by the war in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh is dwarfed by the tax revenue the federal treasury netted from the sales of the high-tech drone targeting systems used in that same war.

After receiving an access-to-information request from Ricochet, the Privy Council Office (PCO) initially said, in November 2020, that it had no records related to discussions or meetings with Baykar, the Turkish drone maker, or L3Harris Wescam. However, after Ricochet shared a copy of an official disclosure of a meeting made under the Lobbying Act and cited a second source, the PCO agreed to take another look. Following months of internal government consultations, it provided numerous pages of partially redacted records late Friday afternoon.

This comes as the House of Commons foreign affairs committee has separately released hundreds of pages of documents that shed light on how drone technology made by Ontario-based firm L3Harris Wescam ended up in the deadly conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

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Canada suspended new export permits for controlled arms to Turkey in October 2019. However, an exemption was created that rolled back parts of this suspension in April 2020 — the same month Prime Minister Trudeau discussed the issue with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This allowed the approval of export permits for L3Harris Wescam surveillance and targeting systems.

Baykar, a Turkish company at the cutting edge of the country’s increasingly effective drone program, is also closely connected to President Erdoğan’s son-in-law. At the centre of the controversy is the firm’s Bayraktar TB2 model drones, which use Canadian thermal surveillance and laser missile targeting technology. The Trudeau government approved exports of L3Harris Wescam’s tech to Turkey in spring of 2020, using the exemption they created.

In early February last year, the Canadian government was in communication with a lobbyist for Baykar, Ken Mackay of Capstone Defence Insights, culminating in a Feb. 12 meeting in Ottawa with Philip Jennings, a senior official in the PCO who regularly attends cabinet meetings and serves as a deputy secretary to the cabinet. This is the only known discussion between Baykar and Canada around the time of the approval of the drone tech exports last year.

The Baykar lobbyist indicated in emails obtained by Ricochet that the matter for discussion was related to L3Harris Wescam and was of “increasing urgency.” While a key section of a memo Mackay sent on behalf of Baykar related to the meeting agenda has been redacted, the relevant entry in the lobby registry lists the communication as related to “Canada’s export of military goods to Turkey.”

Request for the meeting that ended up being held Feb. 12, 2020 on Parliament Hill.

Mackay is a past Liberal party donor who has worked for Wescam parent company L3Harris on numerous occasions, lobbying for the firm between 2005 and 2017, according to federal lobby records. He was previously reached by phone but declined to comment on his relationship with Baykar and Wescam, stating he never talks to the media.

The documents obtained by Ricochet show that Jennings’ team was briefed in advance of the Baykar meeting by a lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Forces who was assigned to the PCO as a defence and foreign policy advisor after having commanded the NATO battle group in Latvia in 2019. The officer notes that Turkey is among the top four destinations for Canadian military exports.

Heavily redacted briefing notes for the Feb. 12, 2020 meeting point out that Turkey is in the top four recipients of Canadian military exports.

He also references other briefings from Global Affairs Canada officials in advance of the Baykar meeting that were sent using CABNet, a secure communications channel. These secure briefings would fall outside the scope of any access-to-information request by the media. Without knowing the content, it is unclear if these secret documents will be disclosed to Parliament.

Last year the PCO told Ricochet that “there has been no follow-up communication between Mr. MacKay and Mr. Jennings” after their meeting. But federal lobbying records show that a week later another lobbyist working directly for L3Harris — a close associate of former prime minister Jean Chretien with extensive ties to the Liberal Party — communicated with Olivier Duhaime, then a senior special assistant to the minister of foreign affairs.

Global Affairs Canada has stopped responding to Ricochet’s access-to-information inquiries about this meeting, and a review of the documents published by the foreign affairs committee last week does not appear to include any reference to this meeting.

Canada’s NATO partner won’t say how war tech was used

The foreign affairs committee received the government files after a motion passed last year compelling the government to provide them as part of Parliament’s investigation into Canadian arms exports. These documents confirm previous reports that President Erdoğan raised the topic of the Wescam export permits in his April 2020 call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and they indicate that Canada was receptive to the many attempts made by industry and senior levels of the Turkish government to encourage export approval.

The need for cooperation among NATO partners was a major element of the justification for the carve-out that allowed Canadian tech to be transferred despite the stated ban. However, when Canada later attempted to obtain information about the drone targeting equipment’s actual use in conflicts abroad, the Turkish government stonewalled.

Bureaucrats frequently noted the technology’s potential use in offensive operations and lethal missile strikes.

At one point another Canadian military officer stationed in Turkey is shown in the committee documents making three unsuccessful attempts within a 10-day span to follow up with senior Turkish military officials, only to be rebuffed for broaching “a very sensitive topic.” This left a former ambassador now serving as a senior Global Affairs Canada official to drily note that “a timely and detailed response through the Turkish Armed Forces/MoD [Ministry of Defence] is probably more than we can hope for.”

When questioned by media, then foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne repeatedly tried to downplay the nature of the military-grade Canadian technology. “I just want also to put it in perspective: we’re talking about a few cameras,” he remarked in October 2020.

Though this depiction of the equipment was echoed at times by some bureaucrats in writing, in multiple other instances the government accurately referred to this technology internally as “electro-optical surveillance and targeting systems” or “laser imaging and targeting sensor systems,” frequently noting their potential use in offensive operations and lethal missile strikes.

This discrepancy between public and internal messaging is reminiscent of the government’s similar contention that military-use armoured vehicles mounted with automatic weapons were just “jeeps,” when behind the scenes Canada had no illusions about what it was actually providing to the Saudi dictatorship.

Heavily redacted documents raise questions

The foreign affairs committee’s motion for the government to provide materials related to the export exemption, which was passed unanimously, specifically instructs “that these documents be provided to the Committee without redactions except to protect Cabinet confidences” and assigns the parliamentary law clerk the power to conduct any alterations.

However, the documents were significantly censored by the government prior to their delivery to Parliament.

It’s a “total failure to even respect the nature of the motion,” NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris, who drafted the committee motion, told Ricochet.

A heavily redacted section of documents released from the Minister of Foreign Affairs pertaining to Turkey's end use of the Canadian technology.

The government stated in a letter to the committee that “Global Affairs Canada has applied the principle of transparency to the greatest extent possible.” A few lines later, it notes that the several hundred sections of redacted material include “information for which disclosure would be injurious to the conduct of international affairs, defence, and third-party competitive positions.” While these are standard explanations many journalists requesting records under the Access to Information Act have become familiar with, none of these reasons appear to be permissible under the committee motion.

“They used the same provisions for exemptions as would be applied in an ATIP request, and that doesn’t comply with the order at all,” Harris said. “We wanted access to everything unredacted with the exception of cabinet confidences.” Although he said he hoped to avoid an impasse over the issue, Harris repeatedly asserted the constitutional right of Parliament to request documents, and underlined its ability to handle sensitive material in conjunction with the non-partisan parliamentary law clerk.

Furthermore, at times Global Affairs Canada has redacted sections of the documents provided to parliament clearly referring to Turkish arms companies, not any Canadian companies it is ostensibly seeking to protect — all while allowing Wescam to be named numerous times.

One passage notes that “there are various entities that have received L3 Wescam products in Turkey, including [REDACTED] etc. These are all well-known and reputable defence companies in Turkey.”

Part of the redacted documents released by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.

Another document states that “Azerbaijan released drone footage of strikes against Armenia positions and the footage appears to come from Turkish [REDACTED] drones,” seemingly shielding the name of Baykar Defence or its Bayraktar TB2 model drone from public view.

Baykar’s use of Canadian technology to target its laser-guided munitions is far from a state secret and has long been well known to military and foreign affairs analysts. Though the government seems to have felt the need to protect the names of foreign arms makers and at times judged them too sensitive for a parliamentary committee to view, the name of Baykar Defence was not censored in the documents obtained by Ricochet directly from the PCO. Why a parliamentary committee received more heavily redacted documents than those provided to Ricochet through an access request is unclear, but the intent of many of these redactions seems to have been to shield a Turkish company from public scrutiny.

Arms approvals ‘not expected to garner media attention’

Officials working on the approval of the arms deal with Turkey seem to have factored in the dearth of media scrutiny these kinds of backroom interactions between lobbyists and government usually face.

While some Global Affairs Canada officials noted the exports may draw attention at the committee level, one early briefing note for the minister of foreign affairs signed by the deputy minister and shared with Parliament points out that “Parliamentary scrutiny is expected to be limited given the current COVID-19 crisis.” It also appears that Global Affairs Canada incorrectly concluded at one point that “the approval of the specific permits mentioned in this memorandum is not expected to garner media attention, as the process is not public.”

Global Affairs Canada has failed to respond to an access request regarding a meeting with an L3Harris lobbyist. That meeting does not appear to have been mentioned in the documents provided to parliament, despite being logged in federal lobbying records.

An incorrect assessment from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ricochet spoke by phone to a number of officials named in the documents, including an official responsible for liaising with Parliament as well as Global Affairs Canada’s director for Eastern Europe and Eurasia, but all declined to comment and directed questions to their media offices.

Ricochet asked the Privy Council Office to comment on why it did not provide any documents to parliament regarding the February meeting with Baykar, seemingly in contravention of the motion, why a BBM exchange referenced in committee documents was not disclosed and why, contrary to the motion, the PCO had redacted the documents before providing them to parliament.

Stéphane Shank, a Media Relations officer with the Privy Council Office, responded with a statement.

“The Privy Council Office supported Global Affairs Canada in the production of documents and records related to the granting of export permits to Turkey in response to the October 29, 2020, Motion of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. Pursuant to that motion, all documents and records were provided to Global Affairs Canada for submission to the Committee.”

Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Grantly Franklin also provided a statement.

“Global Affairs Canada provided the redacted documents to the Foreign Affairs Committee. The specific details of items exported under an export permit are protected commercial information.”

Ricochet also asked MP Harris about the Baykar meeting. Any such meeting with the PCO should likely have been included within the scope of the document production order, he said, an omission that “causes me to be very suspicious of the fulsomeness of the information” given to Parliament.

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