The responsibility for Canada’s security should rest primarily with the prime minister, and a central thrust of John Major’s report on the 1985 Air-India bombings was to make him more clearly accountable for it. The government’s response yesterday was no, and that is a shame.
Mr. Major, a former Supreme Court judge who led an inquiry into Canada’s worst-ever terrorist attacks, which killed 331 people, would have expanded the role of the national security adviser, as has been done in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. “There is no single agency at present with responsibility for managing, executing and controlling responses to terrorist threats,” he wrote in his report six months ago. “No one is in charge.”
The adviser, reporting only to the prime minister, would help set strategic priorities across the score of agencies that gather intelligence, settle disputes between the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP over what information should be shared, and review the agencies to ensure their work is up to standard.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said on Tuesday that the answer is no because his office and the adviser (as currently set up) already do the kind of work envisioned by Mr. Major. His office does have legislative authority over the RCMP and CSIS, for instance. And there are a committee that has representation from various security agencies and a cabinet committee, chaired by the prime minister, that reviews a list of intelligence priorities.
Mr. Major knew all of that, but still urged a greater role for a security adviser, because the agencies with security responsibilities span several ministries, and because the civilian spy agency, CSIS, has too much influence now. “If CSIS does not inform the government about the security threats that it sees on the horizon, no one in government except CSIS will know of them. CSIS will arrogate to itself the power to decide the government’s response to those threats. Yet it is the prime minister who must have the power and the ultimate responsibility.”
Most of the government’s brief “action plan” released on Tuesday in response to Mr. Major’s report was short on both action and plan. But it is the rejection of prime ministerial accountability that is of greatest concern. Everyone is in charge, and no one.