OTTAWA - The Defence Department wasn't trying to hide any information when its staff used terms other than Vice-Admiral Mark Norman's name in internal communications, Canada's top military officer testified in Norman's criminal case Wednesday.
But, Gen. Jonathan Vance conceded, the department could have done a better job of looking for documents that identified Norman only by acronyms and other labels when answering legal requests for documents about the vice-admiral's case.
Norman, who was head of the navy and Vance's No. 2 until he was suspended two years ago, is facing a charge of breach of trust in connection with the alleged leak of cabinet secrets around a $700-million shipbuilding contract.
He has denied any wrongdoing and his defence team has accused the Trudeau government of playing political games with him, singling Norman out for sharing private information when others were leaking as well.
Norman's politically charged trial is scheduled to run through this fall's federal election campaign; this phase of the case, a multiday pre-trial hearing, is about determining what evidence is relevant and what sensitive materials the government has to disclose to Norman's defence lawyers.
On Tuesday, Norman's legal team produced a number of pseudonyms and other identifiers used within the government to refer to his position following testimony last month that department officials intentionally avoided using his name in emails and other correspondence.
Norman's lawyers have asked for access to thousands of government records they say will exonerate their client. They've argued that the use of "code names" at the Defence Department is part of a pattern by the government to prevent, or least delay, the release of key documents that will ensure their client receives a fair trial.
His lawyers listed several code names officials at the department have used to refer to him — including The Boss, MN3, C34 and The Kraken.
Vance, chief of the defence staff, said the use of other terms to refer to military personnel is common in internal communications and documents.
"Those acronyms are not intended to avoid anything," Vance said in response to a question from Norman's lawyer, Marie Henein. "In fact, it would be in my mind foolish to use the acronyms that we've seen as a code word because they're so common."
"Kraken," for instance, is meant to be a play on the word for a mythical gigantic squid that comes from Norman's title as commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, or "CRCN."
On the other hand, Vance said, "if there is a sinister effort by some to use something completely unassociated with the normal vernacular to try and bury communications, well, that would be very serious."
"How is anyone supposed to know how you refer to them?" Henein asked Vance, referring to people with Norman's job title and position.
Vance replied "it would be on us" to ensure that searches directed at the department are interpreted to capture the various ways that Norman's position and title might come up. He added that this task is not managed by the Armed Forces, but by the civilian department.
He also told the court that he provided additional search terms for Norman to the Justice Department late last week.
Following his appearance, Vance told reporters outside the Ottawa courthouse that he wants to ensure the military plays an "effective, correct role" when it comes to the production of documents for Norman's case.
"And if there's anybody out there who is in any way trying to thwart that, then we'll certainly try to get to the bottom of it because he deserves a full and fair defence," Vance said.
"This has been a difficult and painful process for all of us, including Vice-Admiral Norman. None of this makes anyone in uniform happy."
During his testimony, Vance also said he'd spoken to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about Norman's suspension and met in person to inform other senior figures in the government, including Trudeau's top aides Katie Telford and Gerald Butts, exchanges that the Conservatives seized on in question period on Parliament Hill.
"So far we have heard that documents have been withheld from (Norman), access-to-information requests have been deliberately sabotaged so as not to turn up any documents, we've learned today about private dinners and conversations and little meetings that happened with the prime minister and his inner circle that, not surprisingly, no notes or documentation to go along with them," said deputy Tory leader Lisa Raitt, and accused Trudeau of having prejudged Norman's case before he'd even been charged with anything.
"I, of course, have regular interactions with the chief of defence staff," Trudeau replied. "In this instance, the chief notified me of steps being taken regarding this individual. The notion that any politician was involved in those decisions is completely false and I won't comment further as the matter is before the courts."