A group of nine MPs and senators will receive extraordinary powers to delve into Canada's national-security secrets, although questions remain about the government's right to restrict its access to documents or its ability to raise its concerns in public.
As promised in last year's election, the Liberal government tabled legislation to create a new national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians to provide oversight of all 17 federal agencies involved in security issues.
While composed of parliamentarians, the new committee will report to the prime minister, unlike traditional parliamentary committees. As such, the new committee's annual and special reports will be vetted by the government before they are released to prevent the disclosure of any classified information, which stands to constrain the body's ability to raise red flags with the public.
The committee will have a "broad mandate," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale insisted at a news conference. The seven MPs and two senators will be able to review "any activity" carried out by national-security agencies and "any matter relating to national security or intelligence," according to Bill C-22.
However, the government will be able to constrain certain investigations as ministers will have the right to refuse to provide information that "would be injurious to national security." The minister would have to offer a rationale for the decision, but the committee would not have the ability to appeal the matter to any court.
The committee will be able to monitor the work of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, but will be prevented from looking at continuing RCMP criminal investigations or delve into "ongoing defence intelligence activities supporting military operations."
Mr. Goodale said the committee's power will come from its ability to publicly slam the government in its annual or special reports.
"If this committee makes it known in the public domain that they are unhappy with what they have seen … putting that comment in the public domain will quite frankly set off alarm bells right across the country and it will then be incumbent upon the prime minister to explain himself or herself to Canadians," the Public Safety Minister said.
Mr. Goodale said the committee will not specifically receive the public's complaints about national-security operations, given other watchdogs already serve that purpose.
Still, he said the committee will be able to act on public concerns, with the purpose of ensuring that security agencies fulfill their duties but also respect people's rights.
"If such an issue is in the public domain that Canadians are saying this abuse is happening or I don't like this other feature, that will be broadly known to members of Parliament. … If there's an issue like that in the public domain, it will undoubtedly be examined by the committee," Mr. Goodale said.
Members of the committee will swear an oath of secrecy, which they will have to obey for the rest of their lives. Any breach will open the door to criminal prosecution.
Mr. Goodale said he hopes Bill C-22 will be passed by Parliament early in the fall, while he is willing to listen to ideas to improve the legislation from opposition MPs and experts.
Craig Forcese, a law professor and expert in national security at the University of Ottawa, said the legislation is a clear improvement over the status quo. Still, he said he hopes that concerns over the committee's mandate and access to classified information will be addressed before it is adopted.
"On paper at least, this will be a stronger body than the U.K, and Australian equivalents, and a dramatic change for Canadian national-security accountability," Prof. Forcese said.
The prime minister will make all appointments to the committee, with four of the seven MP slots to be filled with government members.
The government has already identified Liberal MP David McGuinty as the future chair of the committee, which will have staff members and meet behind closed doors, in a secure location.
The Conservatives said they will work to improve the committee's design, while lamenting its lack of independence from government, given Mr. McGuinty's appointment. "It leaves the impression the chair will report to the Prime Minister," said Conservative MP Alain Rayes.
NDP MP Murray Rankin said the committee will only work if it has the necessary powers. "We will review this proposal closely to ensure the committee has full access to the information it needs to do its work properly."