By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–Former U.S. ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci asked senior corporate executives with a major weapons firm to press Stephen Harper, while opposition leader, to take a stronger stand on Canadian involvement in the controversial continental missile defence system, according to U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by APTN National News.
Weapons maker Raytheon was already actively lobbying Canadian government officials behind the scenes to support the missile defence system and had asked Cellucci what it could do to “turn things around,” the cables show.
The cables also reveal that the government-appointed Conservative MP who chaired a high-level Canada-U.S. committee on continental defence proposed a revisit of the continental missile defence issue during a 2007 meeting.
A year earlier, while campaigning, Harper said that his government would be open to restarting talks with the U.S. on joining the missile defence system
In 2005, despite intense U.S. pressure, former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin rejected Canadian participation in the high-tech missile system, which is designed to intercept intercontinental or ballistic missiles in space or once they re-enter the atmosphere.
APTN National News obtained the diplomatic cables from whistleblower website WikiLeaks.
CBC-Radio Canada also obtained the same batch of secret and confidential cables. Many of the cables have yet to be released.
U.S. officials believed Martin was personally in favour of Canada joining missile defence, but political opposition in Quebec and Ontario, along with an unstable minority government, eventually lead to his final decision, according to the cables.
The U.S., however, also put the blame on Harper for trying to exploit Liberal divisions over the issue instead of strongly backing Canadian involvement, the cables show.
In a meeting between Harper and Cellucci, the U.S. ambassador accused Harper of “playing politics with North American security” and that lack of Conservative party support for missile defence weakened the Liberal’s resolved for signing on to the system.
“Canada’s handling of the Missile Defense issue reflected a basic lack of principled leadership on the part of both the government and the Opposition,” said the March 4, 2005, “confidential” cable. “The latter, sticking to the line that they were not expected to lead, never laid out a principled position in support of North American defense, and instead used this issue to try to divide the Liberal party.”
Cellucci had been hoping a stronger Conservative stand on the issue would have helped the Liberals overcome their squeamishness and he even asked Raytheon executives to press Harper on taking a bolder position.
“Asked what Raytheon could do to try and turn things around, the ambassador urged Raytheon representatives to talk to Conservative Opposition Leader Stephen Harper,” according to a Dec. 10, 2004 cable.”‘Tell him I sent you,’ he quipped, adding that he would continue to work on persuading Mr. Harper to change tack for the good of the country.”
Raytheon executives were already busy pressing Canadian officials to sign on. The cable revealed that Raytheon held talks with Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. at the time Michael Kergin, Canadian Senators and former Liberal defence minister Bill Graham’s staff who were trying to find ways to get Canada into missile defence.
Raytheon was at one point asked to be an informal conduit between Graham and U.S. officials.
“One of Graham’s executive assistants wanted to know informally (without directly approaching the Embassy) if the USG would be receptive to Canada hosting the X-Band Radar ‘as part of NORAD’ rather than as explicit participation in missile defence,” the cable said. “It might be useful to explore this line of thought and invited the minister’s staff to contact mission staff.”
Raytheon is one of the key firms involved in the development of missile defence systems. Its X-Band, high powered radar forms a central component of the system.
In the end, however, Martin’s government said no, but U.S. officials were intrigued when Harper said he would reopen the issue while campaigning in the run up to his eventual 2006 minority government win. Cellucci’s replacement, former U.S. ambassador David Wilkins, however, suggested the issue be handled more delicately.
“Harper is committed to increasing spending on the armed forces… He has also suggested that the missile defense decision could be re-examined, but I strongly recommend letting him define to us what this means and only then respond to it,” wrote Wilkins, in a Jan. 23, 2006 cable. “Managing the bilateral relationship with an inexperienced, inherently weak minority government also poses challenges and calls for some soft treading.”
While campaigning, Harper told Radio-Canada he would wait for a formal written offer from the U.S., and then he would put the issue to a free Parliamentary vote.
A year later, however, during a meeting of the high-level Permanent Joint Board on Defence, co-chair and Conservative MP Rick Casson suggested the group reopen discussions around missile defence.
“Co-Chairman Casson … also wondered aloud at the end of the meeting if Canada and the United States should revisit Continental Missile Defense at the next meeting of the PJBD,” the Nov. 2, 2007, cable said.
Casson, first elected in 1997, did not run in the latest federal election.
Casson was appointed as chair of the board by the Harper cabinet.
According to the Department of National Defence’s website, the body “is the highest-level bilateral defence forum between the two countries” and has been providing advice on continental defence and security to prime ministers and presidents for decades.
Senior military and government officials from both countries sit on the board.