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Canada's spies versus others spies abroad. Illustration by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Canada's spies versus others spies abroad. Illustration by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Andrew Steele

Who watches CSIS? Add to ...

(Absurd intelligence schemes are not unique to Canada. Just remember the CIA's plan to embarrass Fidel Castro by poisoning him to have his beard fall out.)

The McDonald Commission in 1977 recommended the creation of a civilian agency to better accommodate democratic values in intelligence gathering. This was eventually enacted after a very lengthy debate over the appropriate types of oversight and review.

The amazing thing is that, despite this lengthy discussion, the new intelligence agency, CSIS, has virtually no oversight outside of Cabinet.

There is need for the Federal Court to authorize some domestic activities, including deporting non-citizens currently in the country who are deemed threats. But as Nathalie Des Rosiers from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association notes, this judicial review relies completely on information provided to the judges by CSIS, with limited or no opportunity for the accused to defend themselves.

While controversial, this process has been subject to numerous Supreme Court challenges and at least has the benefit of a robust legal framework and an open debate.

More troubling is the lack of oversight by Parliament.

Rather than Parliament, CSIS is reviewed by a small civilian agency of appointed eminent Canadians, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC). SIRC is not equivalent to the Congressional Intelligence Committees. It does not control CSIS's budget, nor does it approve of any activities taken.

Rather SIRC is what its name implies: a review committee. They undertaken retrospective examinations of activities that they become aware of, typically because CSIS tells them about the activity in an annual report. They also investigate complaints made about CSIS activity.

The role of SIRC is described beautifully on its website:

"It is important to note that SIRC examines CSIS's performance on a retrospective basis, so it is not providing oversight of current CSIS activities. However, by preparing "snapshots" of highly sensitive CSIS activities over more than two decades, SIRC helps Parliament to determine whether CSIS is discharging its mandate effectively."

There are two important lessons in there.

First, SIRC can only review what happens if they know it happened. According to past members, SIRC members are not briefed in advance of activity, nor are they routinely informed about activity in retrospect. The control of information to SIRC is typically at the discretion of CSIS.

Second, SIRC provides highly sanitized "snapshots" of past performance to Parliament, which is the only way Parliament is able to determine if CSIS is discharging its responsibilities properly.

This raises some uncomfortable questions about the level of oversight of CSIS.

There are no allegations of misconduct from our intelligence service, and no reason to suspect anything untoward.

But the truth is that CSIS is overseen almost exclusively by the Cabinet. There is oversight function by the inspector-general and deputy minister for the Public Safety department, but even those two individuals report directly to the minister, as this helpful chart on the CSIS website illustrates.

No one wants operational information made public that might jeopardize an investigation.

But the demands of a free democracy require a level of accountability greater than trusting the professionalism of two civil servants and one elected official to oversee our intelligence community, and five appointees to review information those three people choose to share.

This sin that vice-president Cheney may have committed is assuming he alone could define the national interest.

The laws of the United States set out that - when it comes to intelligence work - the definition of national interest must be set with input from the Democrat and Republican leaders of the House and Senate and of the Intelligence committees. This ensures a variety of perspectives and a robust debate prior to action which may repulse a large segment of the country.

In Canada, we still allow the national interest in intelligence to be defined solely by the Minister of Public Safety and the Prime Minister.

There is a role for Parliament in reviewing the activities of CSIS. But the current challenge is accommodating how the Bloc Québécois would be incorporated into this type of oversight, when a significant segment of the English Canadian community reject their fundamental values as de facto treason.

Instead, it may make more sense to maintain the delegated responsibility invested in SIRC, but to empower that committee to act as an oversight board, rather than just a review board. Its membership of former premiers, ministers and eminent Canadians provides enough diversity of opinion to approximate national views, while keeping the circle of oversight as small and respected as possible.

This would broaden oversight beyond the Cabinet, allowing the public to invest greater trust in CSIS and improving their ability to both secure funding and complete their essential task of defending our nation.

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