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Communications Security Establishment Commissioner Jean-Pierre Plouffe (left) and Security Intelligence Review Committee Executive Director Michael Doucet talk as they wait to appear before the Senate national security committee on the anti-terrorism act, Bill C-51, Thursday, April 23, 2015 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The watchdogs for Canada's spy agencies have got together to tell Parliament how much they resent being kept apart.

Telling a Parliamentary hearing they need new laws to allow them to compare notes about Canada's counter-terrorism operations, the review bodies say they see only a partial picture of what federal police and intelligence agencies are doing.

The watchdogs said their blind spots could grow under C-51, a new bill that would allow federal counter-terrorism agents more latitude to share intelligence – and even engage in "disruption" campaigns.

Parliament has never given the watchdogs the power to discuss operational matters with each other. As a result, each review body remains tethered to one agency, even as agencies increasingly relay information to each other.

"I have to act in a silo, all the time," Jean-Pierre Plouffe, a retired judge who runs a small office that scrutinizes the operation of the Communications Security Establishment which is Canada's international electronic surveillance agency, told the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence on Thursday afternoon.

Flanked by the executive director of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) and the head of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, Mr. Plouffe told Parliament he and his counterparts see only their own agencies' portion of joint counter-terrorism operations.

"What's the problem with sharing operational information among ourselves?" Mr. Plouffe asked.

In Canada, it is increasingly common for the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and Communications Security Establishment to work together to pursue suspects, with each agency frequently looping in their counterparts in the United States or Britain.

The watchdogs say their inability to share information hinders their mandate to looked at how investigations take shape, and determine what is – and is not – lawful.

These issues came to the fore in a controversial 2013 case, in which Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley said Canadian spies had breached their "duty of candour" to his courtroom by not telling him that they relayed intelligence to allies in the cases of Canadian terrorism suspects hiding abroad. Judge Mosley expressed fears Canadian suspects could have come to harm.

The Supreme Court is poised to take another look at this issue in October. A decade ago, a federal commission of inquiry found that the passing of sensitive intelligence between national and international agencies, each of which work to different investigative standards, can increase chances of things going awry. Especially if Canada's watchdog agencies cannot tell each other what they are seeing.

Earlier this week, the Conservative government vowed to effectively double the budget of the SIRC. However, Michael Doucet, the agency's executive director, told Parliament on Thursday he is still worried he will not be able to keep up with what CSIS is doing.

"Bill C-51 will significantly impact the effectiveness of not only SIRC, but of Canada's national security accountability overall. With the passage of Bill C-51, SIRC will stand at a critical threshold whereby its ability [and capacity] to effectively fulfill its review function could be in jeopardy," he told the Parliamentary committee.

Mr. Doucet specifically expressed concern about the "threat diminishment powers."

These powers have never been spelled out, but some law professors say they could allow Canada's spies to empty suspects' bank accounts, seize their passports, and even engage in "smear campaigns."

Because Canada's politicians have no direct role in scrutinizing spy operations, the only ones reviewing such activities would be SIRC.

"Threat-reduction activities are by their very nature potentially controversial and higher-risk, meaning that SIRC will have to pay very close attention to them in coming years," Mr. Doucet said. "The number of complaints that these activities may generate is difficult to predict .... [but] SIRC will therefore face difficult decisions in coming years as we struggle to cover a larger CSIS waterfront."

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