The federal government is rejecting calls for more independent oversight of Canada’s national security agencies even as it speeds passage of legislation that would give sweeping new powers to spies and police in the name of fighting terrorism.
Parliament will vote Monday night on the Anti-Terrorism Act after the Conservatives limited second-reading debate for the legislation to three days. The bill will be sent to a Parliamentary committee for scrutiny. The Tories want the controversial legislation to become law before the summer begins.
On Sunday, Defence Minister Jason Kenney, who has functioned as the government’s lead spokesman for the legislation in recent days, rebuffed an appeal for more independent supervision of national-security agencies – one that came in the form of letter published in The Globe and Mail and signed by former prime ministers, ex–Supreme Court justices and others.
Mr. Kenney noted the letter’s key signatories, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Joe Clark and John Turner, did not change the oversight of Canada’s spy agency, which is currently supervised by the Security Intelligence Review Committee, while they were in power.
“We have the same system that has worked well in Canada for over 25 years,” the Defence Minister told CTV. “I would point out those four former prime ministers all had exactly the same system of an independent oversight committee for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.”
One of the overseers the Conservatives previously relied on was Arthur Porter. The former chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee is currently imprisoned in Panama and is expected to be extradited back to Canada to face fraud-related charges in connection with an alleged bribery scandal tied to a Montreal hospital project.
The Tories’ efforts to expedite the bill comes as a video purported to be from Somali terrorist group al-Shabab urged Muslims to attack shopping malls in Western countries, including Canada’s West Edmonton Mall in Alberta. Sixty-seven people died in September of 2013 after al-Shabab, linked to al-Qaeda, attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
The RCMP said, however, it has no evidence of a “specific or imminent threat to Canadians” related to the al-Shabab video.
Mr. Kenney, who drew headlines last week when he warned Canada faces a high probability of another attack from homegrown jihadis, countered calls for more civilian oversight by saying much of the new powers will be subject to judicial supervision.
He argues that it is wrong to describe C-51 as a bill that gives new powers to police and intelligence agencies, saying in his opinion it awards new authority to judges because it would be courts that approve use of the extra discretion afforded in the legislation.
“None of those new powers that we are proposing to combat terrorism in Canada are vested in those [security] agencies,” Mr. Kenney told CTV. “They are vested in the courts and the judges … the most independent body possible that will be making decisions about whether to detain prospective terrorists or allow CSIS, for example, to interrupt potential terrorist attacks.”
The legislation is a response to the deadly Ottawa attacks on Canadian soldiers last fall that included a gunman storming Parliament. It would give CSIS new interventionist powers to disrupt potential threats to national security and make it easier for authorities to detain or restrict the movements of suspects.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has changed his mind on oversight. His 2006 election platform promised to establish a “National Security Review Committee” to “ensure effective oversight and a greater degree of accountability and transparency regarding Canada’s national security efforts.”
NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison pointed out the Conservatives disbanded one of CSIS’s oversight bodies in 2012 when they scrapped the Office of the Inspector General of CSIS and that the SIRC review committee itself has reported on the trouble it had getting full infomation in a timely manner from Canada’s spy agency.
“This is a part-time group of non-specialists … I don’t think there’s anyway you can make a case that oversight is working well,” Mr. Garrison said of SIRC.
He said judges won’t provide oversight because CSIS will only have to approach the courts when the agency decides what it’s doing would otherwise be illegal.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals support the legislation but want the bill amended to provide for automatic review of the law, to create a Parliamentary oversight body that would monitor the spy agency’s activities and to require some measures to expire after a period of time unless renewed.
Liberal public safety critic Wayne Easter says the Conservatives must ensure the legislation is thoroughly examined in commitee, noting the former Chretien government held 19 days of hearings with 80 witnesses for the major anti-terrorism legislation it passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.