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Politics Federal spy watchdog, at a crossroads, appoints new leader

Former national security adviser Marie-Lucie Morin is also joining the SIRC, which observers have said is understaffed and whose oversight mandate does not include other intelligence gathering agencies.

Cherie Cullen

The Conservative government is shuffling the senior ranks of the civilian spy watchdog, naming former senior judge Pierre Blais to head the organization.

Mr. Blais, who was chief justice of the Federal Court of Appeal, replaces veteran politician Deborah Grey, the former Reform Party and Conservative MP who had served as interim chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee and is stepping down.

The SIRC oversees Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

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The government also announced on Friday that Marie-Lucie Morin, the former national security adviser in the Privy Council Office, is joining the SIRC.

The future role of the organization is the subject of significant political debate on Parliament Hill in light of the Conservative government's plans to expand the powers of CSIS significantly.

The government introduced Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act, in January. It includes a section that would allow CSIS to take measures both in Canada and abroad that would reduce threats to Canadian security.

National security law experts Craig Forcese and Kent Roach warned in an essay published earlier this year by The Walrus magazine that the new CSIS powers are the most "radical" aspect of Bill C-51.

They also argued that the SIRC is understaffed and its work is limited to reviewing CSIS, meaning it has no oversight role for other intelligence gathering agencies, such as the Communications Security Establishment, which provides electronic eavesdropping services to the federal government.

The April 21 federal budget announced an additional $2.5-million per year for SIRC. According to the SIRC annual report, the organization had a budget of $2.8-million in 2014-15, which was down from $2.9-million in 2012-2013.

The Ottawa-based organization has an executive director and 17 staff.

"There are more people working in the parliamentary cafeteria than there are at SIRC," NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair quipped earlier this year in the House of Commons as he questioned Bill C-51.

The House of Commons public safety and national security committee returned the bill to the House with amendments in April.

The bill is now at report stage in the House of Commons, meaning it could soon receive a final vote and would then require Senate approval before becoming law.

The Senate committee on national security and defence has already started a prestudy of the bill, meaning the legislation could become law before Parliament rises for summer.

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