Thursday, May 08, 2008

OTTAWA - Some security experts are taking issue with the Conservative government's characterization of the Maxime Bernier affair as a private matter, saying questionable personal links could leave the minister - and Canadian interests - vulnerable.

Opposition MPs pilloried the Tories on Thursday over revelations the foreign affairs minister's ex-girlfriend, Julie Couillard, consorted with at least two outlaw bikers as recently as the late 1990s.

The Conservatives repeatedly brushed aside opposition cries that Bernier had placed national security at risk by allowing a woman with apparently unsavoury ties to enter his orbit.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Bernier and other top Tories insisted it's nobody's business.

But Chris Mathers, a security consultant who spent years as an undercover RCMP officer, said Bernier's close associates must be closely scrutinized.

"It's a security issue, for sure. . . It's not a private thing when you associate with someone who has criminal associates, and you're a person in authority.

"The reason that's bad is that there could be some type of extortion of the woman, of the minister himself - there's all sorts of potential things that could happen."

Mathers says ties to the murky domain of organized crime, however tenuous, could prove problematic: "It's a world where rumour and innuendo rule."

Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto historian and expert in security and intelligence, also rejected the government line.

"It's a serious matter because cabinet ministers are privy to the most sensitive information available to the government of Canada," he said.

"And we expect them to be very responsible in terms of, first of all, how they handle that kind of information. They're in the same kind of position any senior official with access to highly classified material would be."

Wark pointed out that romantic entanglements with security implications - most notably the Gerda Munsinger affair - have previously ensnared Canadian politicians.

Conservative Pierre Sevigny, one of John Diefenbaker's ministers, resigned from cabinet in 1963 following an affair with Munsinger, a prostitute and Soviet spy.

In 1985, Tory defence minister Robert Coates stepped down after word of his visit to a strip bar in West Germany.

"It's something that we do have some history with," Wark said. "And there are legitimate reasons to be concerned whenever a cabinet minister finds himself in the orbit of people who may have organized crime connections."

However, another expert said it's important not to tar Bernier with guilt by association.

Wade Deisman, a criminologist and director of the University of Ottawa's national security project, said much of what's been said and written about Couillard is based on hearsay.

"She has never been convicted of a criminal offence. All that's been said about her is that she associated with criminals at some point, or people who were involved in organized crime."

Jim Bronskill