The chair of Canada's spy-watchdog committee is an inappropriate choice for the job, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has told Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a letter.
Pierre Blais, who recently retired after being a judge for 16 years and was minister responsible for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in the 1980s as a Conservative cabinet member, was named head of CSIS's review body in May.
The Opposition Leader said in his letter (scroll to the bottom of this story to read the full letter) that when he was consulted before Mr. Blais' appointment, he urged the Prime Minister to pick another candidate.
"We have ideas of nominees to propose for this important position," the letter said, adding that "we strongly believe SIRC must be independent from the government of the day. Mr. Blais, a former Conservative cabinet minister, doesn't fulfill this minimal requirement."
The NDP's correspondence was sent to the Prime Minister in March, weeks before the announcement, and recently obtained by The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Mulcair, who did not name his nominees for SIRC in the letter, said he had "utmost respect" for Mr. Blais. But he argued that his political past disqualified him, especially given how the Prime Minister is "proposing extraordinary new powers for CSIS with no additional oversight."
Bill C-51, controversial new legislation that would bolster CSIS's latitude to conduct covert activities, is expected to pass as early as next week.
By law, the federal government must consult opposition parties before making SIRC appointments.
In the letter, Mr. Mulcair said the Conservatives are interpreting their legislated duty to consult in a way that "seems to simply be a notification."
SIRC consists of five political appointees who lead a full-time staff of nearly 20 in reviewing CSIS activities. This role would take on greater significance under Bill C-51, which would let Canadian intelligence officers apply for secret Federal Court warrants to engage in disruption campaigns.
This would likely mean CSIS officers could disable smartphones, tamper with computers and stop financial transactions if they persuade judges there is a pressing national-security need. The legislation does not spell out what CSIS could or could not do. SIRC is the only body in the federal government that would review how the powers are exercised.
The Conservatives say CSIS needs the flexibility to deal with scores of Canadian extremists being influenced by a growing global jihadist movement. The Prime Minister has lauded Mr. Blais for his "extensive experience in national-security matters."
Mr. Blais promised in an interview with The Globe published this week to hold CSIS to account. "My reputation is that I'm independent. … If we believe there is something wrong, we will say that."
The previous two SIRC chairs were recently retired Conservative MPs who had worked closely with Mr. Harper. The one before that, Arthur Porter, is in a Panamanian prison facing extradition to Canada on fraud charges.
In previous incarnations of the five-member SIRC board, the government of the day usually allowed the second or even third party in the House of Commons to pick one of the appointees. This no longer happens, NDP public-safety critic Randall Garrison said. "We have ideas about who could sit there, but that's not what is going on now."
A recently retired Conservative senator says Canada's intelligence watchdogs have problems, but mostly with structure, not personalities.
Hugh Segal, a proponent of giving legislators a window into CSIS's work, said SIRC, as a politically appointed review body, is built to do only so much.
It "doesn't have the mandate to review plans, strategies, budgets, operational questions that the national-security agencies face going forward," he said, adding that this capacity "exists in all our NATO partners."
Full text of Mulcair's letter
Dear Prime Minister,
Thank you for your letter of March 5th proposing Pierre Blais as the next Chair of the Security and Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC).
We have ideas of nominees to propose for this important position, so it is disappointing that the manner in which you have contacted the Official Opposition is inconsistent with the common legal understanding of "consultation" and instead seems to simply be a notification.
To make sure the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) respects our Constitution and Canadians' rights and freedoms – in particular at a time you are proposing extraordinary new powers for CSIS with no additional oversight – we strongly believe SIRC must be independent from the government of the day. Mr. Blais, a former Conservative cabinet minister, doesn't fulfill this minimal requirement.
With that in mind, and with the utmost respect for Mr. Blais' experience, I cannot support this nominee.
Thomas Mulcair, P.C. M.P.
Leader of the Official Opposition