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CANSOFCOM encounter with a civilian in Port Hawkesbury, N.S.

cudmore

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This is getting a lot of comment traffic on our website.  The story leads to some interesting questions about how CANSOFCOM manages it's public-facing self. 
http://www.cbc.ca/m/touch/politics/story/1.2426280

Mysterious military exercise leads to gruff encounter

Small-town military exercise cloaked in secrecy led to man being questioned for taking photos

James Cudmore CBC News

A man with a camera who stumbled on a military special forces exercise in a small Cape Breton town had his patriotism gruffly questioned by an undercover soldier, and was quizzed about whether he belonged to an anti-government movement.

Robert Westbrook said he was also threatened with arrest and he worried the undercover soldier would lash out and strike him.

"He takes a few steps back and clenches his fist and jaw angrily," Westbrook wrote in an account he posted online. " I truly think for a moment that he's going to take a swing at me."

Westbrook, 46, lives in Port Hawkesbury, N.S., on Cape Breton Island. The town of 3,366 is the last place Westbrook says he'd expect to run into undercover Canadian special forces troops participating in an exercise.

But that's what happened the night of Oct. 25, when Westbrook was confronted by two soldiers dressed in civilian clothes who demanded to know who he was and why he had a camera.

The military has refused an interview on the incident, and only responded to CBC News queries about the incident after several calls and emails and six days of waiting.

Official stone-walling notwithstanding, CBC News has come to learn the exercise included members of Canadian Special Operations Force Command, or CANSOFCOM, as it’s called, and likely included members of the special operations and counterterrorism unit Joint Task Force II.

'Quite strange'
JTF2 is a highly-secretive unit, and its activities are most often kept under wraps by the government.

Their work has included hunting Taliban leaders and bomb makers in Afghanistan, as well providing military close protection to high-ranking government officials in war zones overseas, including the prime minister.

The unit’s soldiers make up a so-called force of last resort in Canada if ever the country is threatened by violent extremist attack or terrorism.

Although the Port Hawkesbury exercise featured Canadian special operations soldiers, it’s believed the two soldiers who confronted Westbrook were not elite assaulters, but supporting troops.


A truck that unloaded at a normally abandoned call centre in Port Hawkesbury, NS. (Robert Westbrook)

One soldier identified himself as a military policeman, although he was not clothed in the standard military police black uniform or cherry red beret. The other soldier called himself "Adam," and said he was running security for the military "training evolution" that was taking place at that abandoned call centre, just two blocks from Westbrook's house.

Westbrook told CBC News he went down to check out the unusual activity at the abandoned call centre.

"There was quite a bit of activity. So, we thought this was quite strange," he said.

No sign of military exercise
The call centre was a town landmark that once employed as many as 300 locals, but it has been closed for a couple of years.​

Now the only activity in the almost 10,000-square-metre office block was a small military recruiting office. But that couldn't account for the 50 or 60 civilian cars and trucks Westbrook said he saw that night.

Westbrook is a freelance photographer, and started taking pictures.

After a few minutes, Westbrook says the first soldier drove up and identified himself as military policeman.

"It puzzled me to no end because ... there was no evidence of any military involvement, there were no signs stating that, no announcement to the public that there was going to be an exercise here. There was no one in uniform, and no military vehicles at all."

Westbrook says he told the officer that he was just there to take some pictures.

'Asked if I was a patriot'
About seven minutes later, Westbrook says, a soldier called "Adam" burst onto the scene demanding to know who Westbrook was and why he was taking pictures. 

Westbrook says he was on public property throughout the encounter and wasn't breaking any laws.

He recorded the conversation on his iPod.

Westbrook says he told "Adam” he was a freelance photographer.

"He immediately got more aggressive and asked if I was patriotic, which I thought was quite a strange question, and I didn't really answer that because I didn't think it was relevant, and I said so.”

According to the recording, "Adam" then dropped the name of the local RCMP detachment commander, Sgt. Shelby Miller, who he said was a "good friend," with whom he was in "direct contact."

"So, I don't want to call Shelby Miller and have him come down here and deal with this," "Adam" said.

Westbrook said he viewed this exchange as a threat of arrest. It got his back up and, as a result, Westbrook says he dug in his heels.

"I was quite insulted by that because I wasn't breaking the law and I was fully aware that I wasn't breaking the law. At that point [“Adam”] got quite visibly upset. I thought he might actually punch me."

Westbrook edited down a seven-minute version of his audio recording and posted it on YouTube. It's been viewed nearly 7,000 times.

The recording shows "Adam" returning to that question about Westbrook's patriotism.

"Clearly, you're not patriotic, " he said, before turning to a new tack:  “Are you here as some sort of anti-government movement?" he said.

"Adam" eventually walked away, and so did Westbrook.

'Committed to positive community relations'
Westbrook says politically he's "middle of the road," and at least as patriotic as the next person.

"If by patriotism you define that as love of one's country, yeah, I would say I am patriotic. I love Canada. That is why I chose to become a citizen here."

Westbrook was an American who married a Canadian woman and became a citizen in August.

But the encounter with soldiers of his new country's army left him shaking his head about the professionalism of those who planned the secret exercise.


A bus that unloaded into a normally empty parking lot in Port Hawkesbury, NS. (Robert Westbrook)

"It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense that they would be interested in that level of secrecy and yet expect no reaction when they locate themselves in a call centre that has been a major employer over the past decade in the area and expect people to not ask questions."

Miller, the RCMP detachment commander, says he was aware the military exercise was taking place, but that he's not friends with "Adam."

"Never met the man," Miller said.

In the end, defence officials provided a brief written statement.

"The Military Police are firmly committed to positive community relations," the statement said.

"Additional training will now be afforded to unit members involved to better prepare them for situations of this nature."




 

FJAG

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I've seen/heard the video (heard because much of it is just audio) and find very little wrong with the MP's here. The one question about "are you a patriot?" was a little out of left-field but generally they treated him politely and with respect.

Based on the photographers comments back to them I have formed the opinion that he was being a bit dramatic when he says that he felt that the individual "clenched" his fist and jaw and that further he felt he was about to be hit. The MP's tone both before and after this alleged motion certainly didn't sound aggressive.

All-in-all a lot of drama over what in my opinion was a very benign event.

:cheers:
 

JorgSlice

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Neato.

FJAG said:
I've seen/heard the video (heard because much of it is just audio) and find very little wrong with the MP's here. The one question about "are you a patriot?" was a little out of left-field but generally they treated him politely and with respect.

Based on the photographers comments back to them I have formed the opinion that he was being a bit dramatic when he says that he felt that the individual "clenched" his fist and jaw and that further he felt he was about to be hit. The MP's tone both before and after this alleged motion certainly didn't sound aggressive.

All-in-all a lot of drama over what in my opinion was a very benign event.

:cheers:

Just to add to this, since I joined the CF many of my civvy coworkers and friends have said I sound more authoritative and aggressive than I did before I joined. I never noticed a change. Could be that we're used to it.

I do have to say when CANSOFCOM/JTF2 are involved and its a guarded secret, they have every right to be suspicious of people lurking nearby.
 

Pte. Jay

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PrairieThunder said:
Neato.

Just to add to this, since I joined the CF many of my civvy coworkers and friends have said I sound more authoritative and aggressive than I did before I joined. I never noticed a change. Could be that we're used to it.

I do have to say when CANSOFCOM/JTF2 are involved and its a guarded secret, they have every right to be suspicious of people lurking nearby.

I'm not in the military, so I'm not used to the more authoritative tone, and I can say that they both sounded fairly polite (especially the MP). It is however true that some of the points Adam was making sounded pretty intimidating, and the RCMP Detachment statement was way out of line, but I can understand their concern.
 

PuckChaser

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JayB said:
I'm not in the military, so I'm not used to the more authoritative tone, and I can say that they both sounded fairly polite (especially the MP). It is however true that some of the points Adam was making sounded pretty intimidating, and the RCMP Detachment statement was way out of line, but I can understand their concern.

How's the RCMP comment out of line? The RCMP was likely aware of the training exercise and aware that the members of whatever unit was there do not appreciate photographs being taken of their training. The military member (if that who he was) didn't want to get into a confrontation, and thought the easiest way to resolve the issue was to mention calling the police. If that photographer was there for nefarious purposes, he wouldn't want the RCMP to show up and probably would have taken off. Issue resolved. If the guy wasn't doing anything wrong, then why worry about the RCMP?
 

cupper

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One thing to remember is that according to the article, the recording was edited down by the Photog, so there could be some pertinent info that was left out of that presented.

Having said that, it seems to me that Westbrook may be creating a tempest in a teapot, and is guilty of being a little sensitive in being challenged by members of the military. Nothing he said was incorrect, and he wasn't breaking any laws (except maybe local loitering bylaws). Fine. But to describe this as a potential situation where violence could have resulted, maybe he was a tad over the top. [overly dramatic sarcasm] Just a tad. [/overly dramatic sarcasm]

I think that "Adam" could have handled things a little better as well. The whole patriotic line was bogus. He could have simply explained that the exercise included persons whose identity needed to be protected (which he did after the patriotic line) and that they would prefer that if Westbrook continued to photograph, ask that he not photograph faces of those involved. He could have asked to review the photos afterwards to ensure that nothing of a sensitive nature was captured.

But overall, I think this is a Shakespearian Much Ado About Nothing.
 

George Wallace

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Well said Cupper.  The MP should have dealt with the matter a little more diplomatically, as should have "Adam".  These are the types of people who cause bad publicity incidents like this to get attention.  It is unfortunate that such people do become associated with the SOF community from time to time.  We had a similar incident with a "MP" pulling such a stunt on a uniformed Coyote Crew who had set up a Traffic Control Point in the vicinity of 'the Hill' during a 'publicized' military exercise in Eastern Ontario.  There are such people in all Trades, who sometimes inflate their importance more than it really is.  It looks like this may be the case here for all parties concerned, including the civilian.

 

Jarnhamar

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Nothing screams low visibility like telling people THERES NOTHING TO SEE HERE and acting like a secret agent.
 

George Wallace

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ObedientiaZelum said:
Nothing screams low visibility like telling people THERES NOTHING TO SEE HERE and acting like a secret agent.

LOL

So true.  Had that happen to us playing OPFOR in Kingston.  Guy from Base, sitting on steps of Transient Qtrs asked one of the guys if we were JTF.  When he was told "No", it didn't stop him from spreading the rumour that "JTF was in town".
 

Remius

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George Wallace said:
LOL

So true.  Had that happen to us playing OPFOR in Kingston.  Guy from Base, sitting on steps of Transient Qtrs asked one of the guys if we were JTF.  When he was told "No", it didn't stop him from spreading the rumour that "JTF was in town".

George, it might also mean that you guys needed haircuts... ;D
 

Eye In The Sky

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If you really want to see threats of violence, acts of intimidation and violation of Charter Rights etc, go to the Micmac Mall tax-free shopping event before Christmas.  Last time I was there, I was body-checked by an elderly lady at the Stokes store.  I guess she REALLY want that fondue set that was on sale.

No one was there to report on how *I* was offended and make sure I didn't have any boo-boo's.  :'(


Video Link

Just a point, the dude with the camera DID identify himself as "a professional photographer" and used the word "documentary".  Not quite the same as saying "I am just a local and was out for a walk, thought I'd snap a few pics.  What you guys doin'?"

So, IMO, he was the first one to get his knickers in the knot.  I'm not sure how many 'professional photographers' live in that area and are wandering around at night on the side of the road doin' their thing.  I'm going to guess *zero*.

In his video (54 sec mark), he comments that he was out to take pictures of the building (at night) for an employer he was hopeful was coming to his town.  Groovy.  According to the video he went on to record, those would have been some kick-ass photo's in the dark of a building. 

Sorry but I'm of the opinion that buddy was just plain ol curious and grabbed his camera.  After the MP spoke to him, he 'walked up and down the street taking pictures for about 7 minutes" according to his video comments.  Doesn't really make sense with his other comment on the youtube page where he says "I had no clue this was a military exercise until the guard told me. If I'd known what it was, I wouldn't have gone over there with a camera."  Hard to believe that when after he DID find out, he kept on snapping.

People are too thin-skinned these days.


 

M Feetham

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I havn't seen/heard the video and this is actually the first i have heard of it. My questions are 1. If there was an MP on the scene why did this Adam guy get involved at all. Surely the MP could have handled it. 2. When there is some sort of exercise going on that could be seen by the public there is normally some sort of heads up given to the media or at least local law enforcement. Did any of that happen? I can't really comment on anything else.
 

Teager

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M Feetham said:
I havn't seen/heard the video and this is actually the first i have heard of it. My questions are 1. If there was an MP on the scene why did this Adam guy get involved at all. Surely the MP could have handled it. 2. When there is some sort of exercise going on that could be seen by the public there is normally some sort of heads up given to the media or at least local law enforcement. Did any of that happen? I can't really comment on anything else.

Thats part of the exercise to do it so quietly that no one in the public even notices  ;D
 

George Wallace

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The RCMP, according to the article, did know about it.  The same would be said about the Municipal Office and the owner of the building.  There may have even been a tiny ad in the local papers.  You know the type of ad that no one reads and ignores when skimming through the news.
 

Colin Parkinson

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If you are exercising in public, you better expect your picture to be taken these days and up on Youtube a few minutes later.
 
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