OTTAWA - If the Prime Minister is seeking the first link in the chain of events that has rocked the U.S. presidential race, he need look no further than his chief of staff, Ian Brodie, The Canadian Press has learned.
A candid comment to journalists from CTV News by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's most senior political staffer during the hurly-burly of a budget lock-up provided the initial spark in what the American media are now calling NAFTAgate.
Mr. Harper announced Wednesday that he has asked an internal security team to begin finding the source of a document leak that he characterized as being "blatantly unfair" to Senator Barack Obama.
What is now a swirling Canada-U.S. controversy began on Feb. 26, when the usually circumspect Mr. Brodie was milling among droves of Canadian media on budget day in the stately old building that once housed Ottawa's train station.
Reporters were locked up there all day, examining the federal budget until they were allowed to leave once it was tabled in the House of Commons at 4 p.m.
Since the budget contained little in the way of headline-grabbing surprises, some were left with enough free time to gather around a large-screen TV to watch the latest hockey news on NHL trade deadline day.
Mr. Brodie wandered over to speak to Finance Department officials and chatted amiably with journalists - who appreciated this rare moment of direct access to the top official in Mr. Harper's notoriously tight-lipped government.
The former university professor found himself in a room with CTV employees where he was quickly surrounded by a gaggle of reporters while other journalists were within earshot of other colleagues.
At the end of an extended conversation, Mr. Brodie was asked about remarks aimed by the Democratic candidates at Ohio's anti-NAFTA voters that carried serious economic implications for Canada.
Since 75 per cent of Canadian exports go to the U.S., Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton's musings about reopening the North American free-trade pact had caused some concern.
Mr. Brodie downplayed those concerns.
"Quite a few people heard it," said one source in the room.
"He said someone from (Hillary) Clinton's campaign is telling the embassy to take it with a grain of salt. . . That someone called us and told us not to worry."
Government officials did not deny the conversation took place.
They said that Mr. Brodie sought to allay concerns about the impact of Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton's assertion that they would re-negotiate NAFTA if elected. But they did say that Mr. Brodie had no recollection of discussing any specific candidate - either Ms. Clinton or Mr. Obama.
CTV News President Robert Hurst said he would not discuss his journalists' sources.
But others said the content of Mr. Brodie's remarks was passed on to CTV's Washington bureau and their White House correspondent set out the next day to pursue the story on Ms. Clinton's apparent hypocrisy on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Although CTV correspondent Tom Clark mentioned Ms. Clinton in passing, the focus of his story was on assurances from the Obama camp.
He went to air on Feb. 27 with a report that the Democratic front-runner had given advance notice to Canadian diplomats that he was about to engage in some anti-NAFTA rhetoric, but not to take it too seriously.
The report wound up on YouTube and caused an uproar in the U.S. race - influencing the final days of the critical Ohio primary, with every indication it will also play a role in the upcoming Pennsylvania vote.
Mr. Obama has been pilloried by his opponents and faced the most aggressive questioning of his heretofore smooth-sailing campaign.
Clinton used the story to cast him as a double-talking hypocrite - winking and nudging at Canadians while making contrary promises to American voters.
Republican nominee John McCain - who proudly dubs himself a straight-talker - has also seized on the incident to paint the Democratic front-runner as anything but.
When Mr. Obama's campaign and the Canadian government denied the allegation, a leaked document was obtained by The Associated Press written by a Canadian diplomat. It chronicled a conversation between Obama economic adviser Austan Goulsbee and diplomats at Canada's Chicago consulate.
The Obama aide has challenged the wording of the memo and says it characterized the conversation unfairly. A government official said that memo was initially e-mailed to over 120 government employees.
Mr. Harper has rebuffed opposition requests to call in the RCMP and also investigate the source of the original tip that led to the CTV report that triggered the diplomatic tempest. But a team of internal security agents has begun an investigation that will see dozens of bureaucrats and political staff questioned about their knowledge of the leak.
"This kind of leaking of information is completely unacceptable. In fact, it may well be illegal," Mr. Harper told the House of Commons.
"It is not useful, it is not in the interests of the government of Canada - and the way the leak was executed was blatantly unfair to Senator Obama and his campaign.
"Based on what (investigators) find, and based on legal advice, we will take any action that is necessary to get to the bottom of this matter."
NDP Leader Jack Layton is asking Mr. Harper to call on the Mounties to find out how the leaks occurred, and whether the Security of Information Act or any other privacy legislation was breached.
"There can be no doubt about it: the leak from within the Canadian government has had an impact now on the American elections," Mr. Layton said Wednesday.
"That is about the worst thing a country could do to another country - to have an effect on their democratic process. . . If Mr. Harper isn't willing to call in the RCMP that confirms our suspicion that this was intentional."
Mr. Layton said Canadians would never accept Americans interfering in our elections, and we shouldn't tamper with theirs.
He said the incident is far more serious than another one last year in which the government called in the RCMP.
A temporary employee at Environment Canada was arrested in his office and marched out in handcuffs for allegedly leaking details of a government climate-change plan to the media.
Mr. Layton said that's small potatoes compared with inflicting political damage on one of the three contenders to lead the world's biggest superpower, and Canada's neighbour and largest trading partner.
"He's unwilling to treat it with the level of serious attention that he did when there was a junior bureaucrat at environment. . . He called in the RCMP on that one."
© 2008 The Globe and Mail