What Are Our Intelligence Agencies Up To?

Wayne Easter on why it's time for Canada to establish an effective intelligence oversight committee.
By: /
October 23, 2013

Former Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci, who led an inquiry into the detention of Canadians Ahmad El Maati, Muayyed Nureddin and Abdullah Almalki, in 2008. A June 2009 public safety committee report looking at that and another inquiry recommended that the government introduce a bill establishing a national security committee of parliamentarians.

The recent events involving Communications Security Establishment Canada with respect to its alleged monitoring and collection of electronic data from Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy, only reinforces the need for a far more transparent process by which Parliamentarians specifically can gain a better understanding and provide oversight with the issues involving our intelligence gathering agencies.

It has to be kept in mind that CSEC has direct relationships with respect to the intelligence gathering agencies of a number of foreign countries, as well as providing direct assistance to the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

It is absolutely essential that Parliament, on behalf of Canada’s citizens, have a full appreciation of what these agencies are in fact doing.

The oversight bodies currently in place have a reactive role to play in terms of what the agencies have done. While this role is critical, it is not adequate in today’s world. The call for an effective oversight committee of Parliamentarians is something that has been made on a number of occasions, first by a previous Liberal government through its minister of public safety, and more recently by private members bills.

Comments by the journalist who broke the story on Edward Snowden and the leaking of files from the United States National Security Agency are very disturbing. Glenn Greenwald, who has reported seeing the documents, stated that while the rationale given by the Harper government among other governments is that the work of CSEC and the NSA are first and foremost to target terrorist threats, the documents reveal that “it is industrial and economic competition, it’s about mining resources and minerals.”   

Given the fact this intelligence gathering goes far beyond targeting terrorists, it is time for a far more rigorous and aggressive oversight of our intelligence gathering entities to determine what kinds of actions they are involved with, as well as the relationships in terms of information and data sharing between what are called the Five Eyes—the alliance between Canada, the US, Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand—and on whose behalf the data being collected is specifically for.

According to a Senate report of March 2011 the necessity for Parliamentary oversight of our intelligence and security apparatus was evident. "Canada now lags significantly behind its allies on the issue of parliamentary oversight as the only country that lacks a parliamentary committee with substantial powers of review over matters of national security."

Australia, the UK, the US, France, and the Netherlands are among the countries which have a system whereby representatives are able to monitor and have access to issues related to national security—every one of which have systems in place which exceed anything currently established in Canada.

As referred to earlier, the last Liberal government brought forward C-81 in November 2005, An Act to establish the National Security Committee of Parliamentarians. In fact, the bill came out of recommendations from an ad hoc committee representing the major political parties at the time. When the government changed in 2006, Derek Lee subsequently introduced the bill as a private members bill.

The mandate of the committee, according to the Senate report, "would have had access to classified information, would have been to review the legislative, regulatory, policy and administrative framework for national security in Canada, the activities of federal departments and agencies in relation to national security and any other matters relating to national security referred to it by the government."  

In a June 2009 report of the public safety committee on the Iacobucci/O'Connor inquires, the fifth recommendation of that report stated: “the committee recommends that Bill C-81, An Act to establish the National Security Committee of Parliamentarians, or a variation of it, which was previously introduced in the 38th Parliament, be reintroduced in Parliament at the earliest opportunity.”

While there was a dissenting report from the Conservative members of the committee, they did not object to nor attempt to modify this recommendation.

The government response of Oct. 19, 2009 stated that note had been taken of this recommendation but no further action was taken.

The closest the Harper government has come to anything involving Parliamentarians in oversight of security issues was the ad hoc committee on the Afghan detainee document issue, following the ruling by Speaker Milliken of April 2010, and the establishment in May 2011 of a cabinet committee on national security, since disbanded by the prime minister in July.

Neither of these had anything to do with the recommendations calling for a serious, permanent committee of Parliamentarians overseeing national security issues.

It is my intention to ensure that the previous legislation brought forward by the last Liberal government, An Act to Establish the National Security Committee of Parliamentarians, is brought forward this fall.