TORONTO — Here’s an intriguing twist on the whole “NAFTA-gate” scandal: Barack Obama’s campaign may not have been the only one suggesting to Canadian officials that they need not worry too much about the campaign-season pledges of Democratic presidential contenders to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

According to Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, Hillary Clinton’s campaign may also have contacted the Canadians to suggest that campaign-season talk of getting tough on trade issues need not be taken seriously by foreign trading partners.

On February 26, Ian Brodie, the chief of staff for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper — a conservative with close ties to the Bush administration and the Republican Party in the U.S. — reportedly got into a discussion about the trade debate in the U.S. with a group of reporters for Canada’s CTV television network.

“The conversation turned to the pledges to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement made by the two Democratic contenders, Mr. Obama and New York Senator Hillary Clinton,” the Globe and Mail reports. “Mr. Brodie, apparently seeking to play down the potential impact on Canada, told the reporters the threat was not serious, and that someone from Ms. Clinton’s campaign had even contacted Canadian diplomats to tell them not to worry because the NAFTA threats were mostly political posturing.”

Hold it right there: “somebody from Ms. Clinton’s campaign had even contacted Canadian diplomats to tell them not to worry because the NAFTA threats were mostly political posturing”?

According to the Canadian Press wire service, which has also been following the story of trade-related communications between the campaigns of the Democratic presidential contenders and the Canadians, several people overheard Brodie making the reference to the Clinton campaign making the contact.

Brodie’s not talking – he might be worried about parliamentary calls for a Royal Canadian Mounted Police inquiry into leaks regarding the U.S. campaign. According to the Globe and Mail, “There was no explanation last night for why Mr. Brodie was said to have referred to the Clinton campaign but the news report was about the Obama campaign. Robert Hurst, president of CTV News, declined to comment.

The Prime Minister’s communications director, Sandra Buckler, insists that Mr. Brodie “does not recall” discussing the issue.” And, of course, the Clinton campaign denies the back-channel communication – as the Obama campaign did last week.

This new twist in the sordid tale of candidates who say one thing on the U.S. trail and another in behind-closed-doors meetings with representatives of foreign governments does not absolve the Obama campaign. When CTV Washington bureau chief Tom Clark investigated the comment by Brodie, he came up with the now well-circulated story that the Obama campaign – in the person of chief economic adviser Austan Goolsbee — had told the Canadian not to believe the snit-NAFTA rhetoric coming out of the candidate’s mouth.

The leak of an official memo regarding the Goolsbee meeting with the Canadian diplomat in Chicago shook up the Democratic presidential race on the eve of the March 4 primary in Ohio, where late-deciding voters in that very anti-NAFTA state went for Clinton. Both the Clinton and Obama camps suggest the Goolsbee story in general and the leaked memo in particular influenced the March 4 voting in the Buckeye State.

Clinton made the issue a central theme in her stump speeches and her campaign cut a television ad referencing it And wisely so, as Clinton strategist Mark Penn says the controversy “had a significant impact” in a state where many voters had doubts about the sincerity of pledges by both candidates to renegotiate a trade pact that is seen one of many such deals that have done severe damage to the state’s manufacturing sector.

Penn indicated that the Clinton camp would continue to use the “NAFTA-gate” scandal to paint Obama as a hypocrite on trade issues, saying that, “I think it’s going to be a serious issue moving forward in the campaign.”

But if the Clinton camp also was communicating with the Canadians, then the whole question of who to trust on NAFTA in particular and trade in general grows, and the “hypocrite” charge will cut both ways.

Canadian parliamentarians, led by the New Democratic Party’s Jack Layton, are calling for the firing of Brodie for interfering in foreign elections and seeking a full investigation by the Mounties. Layton’s blunt, saying, “We know that Ian Brodie, the chief of staff for the prime minister, was involved, and this was clear involvement in U.S. politics.”

But what was the precise involvement? What was the precise intent? Was it a case, as Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin suggests, of Harper and his conservative aides “doing a very good deed for their Republican cousins”? And what exactly have the Clinton and Obama camps been saying to the Canadians about the validity of campaign-trail claims regarding trade?

There are more questions than answers at this point. And the discussion of this leak needs to go deeper.

Even U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, a Bush appointee, says of the leaks, “I’ve got no way of knowing whether it was unintentional or intentional or anything of that nature.”

Canadian opposition leaders like Layton will work on their end to determine the answer to questions about what was being said about the U.S. campaign and NAFTA by Harper, Brodie and those around them.

American officials, particularly members of Congress who care about the trade debate such as North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, might want to press the both Democratic presidential candidates to come clean about who said what to the Canadians and what is being done about it. If the Canadians are talking about firing an official who was involved with the back-channel NAFTA discussions, shouldn’t key Democrats be pressuring the Clinton and Obama campaigns to do the same?