The Canadian government recently voted to expand and extend the Canadian Special Operations Regiment’s “training and advising” mission in Iraq as well as the air bombing campaign, which will now extends to the Syrian portion of ISIS-controlled territory. With a first soldier killed as a result of friendly fire which revealed that CSOR has been operating on the frontlines, the confusion around the mission’s objectives and parameters arose in the public sphere, and both politicians and military leaders have so far proven inept at matching transparency and clarity.
In the United States, most special operations forces units enjoy a wide public window, with the notable exception of the Army’s CAG/Delta/1st SFOD and the Navy’s DEVGRU/Seal Team 6, save for high-profile interventions such as the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Most of their activities are held accountable through two subcommittees of the US Senate Committee on Armed Forces – budget, operations, procurement, personnel. Such a checks-and-balances system has mostly been accepted and very few have questioned its legitimacy.
And yet, commentators and politicians voiced their concerns when Canadian Special Operations Forces Command Brigadier Gen. Michael Rouleau broke with a tradition of secrecy and started giving press briefings about CSOR’s mission in Iraq, with some losing their mind over fears that increased media coverage opens the door to potential OPSEC and INFOSEC violations that could not only jeopardize the mission, but put soldier’s lives at risk.
Contrary to US Congress, the Great White North’s Parliament doesn’t follow Canadian special operations forces’ activities through committees. In fact, there is no oversight mechanism doing so, with the military establishment and government basically demanding blind trust from the public and citing national security concerns.
Not very democratic – it’s been a political tradition over the past years that government goes out of its way to shut out transparency mechanisms and cut access to information from most of its major departments, including National Defence. Michael Rouleau is swimming counter-current in this context, notably when he confirmed that Canadian special operations JTAC controllers were on the ground guiding warplanes to their targets. And that, following firefights with ISIS militants, his soldiers operated alongside Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers on the front lines as part of their advising duties if only to validate their training.
And since CSOR operator Sgt Andrew Doiron was killed in a friendly fire incident in March, several details have been published in the media such as the circumstances behind his death – officially a case of mistaken identity which led Kurdish fighters to shoot at the Canadian special operations patrol, killing Doiron and wounding four more. Details that made the Canadian public aware of the nature of the mission, without revealing specifics such as location, troop numbers, equipment, local fixer’s name, etc.
Details that lift a veil of confusion around Canada’s mission in Iraq, at least partially, without jeopardizing anything. Unlike the government, Gen. Rouleau understands that while there won’t be patrol orders issued in Parliament, transparency is key to maintain public support of the mission. Unlike the government, he knows the difference between transparency and INFOSEC/OPSEC. Maybe he’s inaugurating a new era in Canadian military affairs where even special operations are accountable to elected Parliament.
Let’s see how that will impact his future postings.