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John Adams, shown in Ottawa on Oct. 8, 2013, is a former chief of Communications Security Establishment Canada.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

The former chief of this country's electronic eavesdropping agency says the Communications Security Establishment Canada – now facing allegations it spied on Brazil – should be subject to regular parliamentary scrutiny by an all-party committee of MPs and senators.

John Adams, who led CSEC between 2005 and 2012, says the idea makes sense in the name of "informed consent." He also believes the federal government needs to do more to demonstrate to Canadians that CSEC ("see-seck") – sometimes called Canada's most secretive federal agency – is protecting national security while respecting civil liberties.

CSEC has enjoyed significant budget increases in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and is building a gleaming new $900-million headquarters in east Ottawa. The agency, which snoops on foreign communications and safeguards Canadian computer networks from attack, is a close ally of the United States' National Security Agency. Like the NSA, it's now facing charges of spying on other countries based on documents first obtained by former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden.

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Mr. Adams said he felt frustrated as CSEC chief when parliamentarians would raise concerns that he couldn't address because they weren't cleared to receive classified information.

He recommends a setup similar to what exists in the United Kingdom Parliament, where an intelligence and security committee composed of members appointed from the Commons and House of Lords keeps tabs on the conduct of British spies. Mr. Adams would like to see Canadian MPs and senators sworn to secrecy and similarly briefed.

"They would be cleared to the highest levels and then CSEC could brief them on their operations and proposed operations. And then there would be debate within that committee," the ex-CSEC chief said.

He shies away from the term "oversight," saying that to him this implies politicians would have some say in directing operations. But he adds that MPs or senators could object if they don't like what they are hearing – feedback that would give CSEC pause.

"If CSEC can't convince the parliamentarians then they can't convince Canadians – in which case they'd better think of a new way to go," Mr. Adams said.

MPs and senators couldn't spill secrets that they'd learned but, Mr. Adams hopes, they could assure their colleagues and the Canadian public that CSEC is acting within the law.

"The real concern that everyone has is this: Are they in the name of security breaching civil liberties? I am convinced that CSEC doesn't breach civil liberties."

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CSEC monitors satellite, radio and telephone traffic for intelligence of interest to Canada but it has never been known as a hub of economic intelligence gathering.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking to reporters following a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Indonesia, said he will follow up to see whether CSEC acted within the law.

The only watchdog who currently oversees the Communications Security Establishment is the CSEC commissioner. He advises the Minister of National Defence and the Attorney-General of Canada if he feels CSEC is not in compliance with the law.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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