A doctor appointed by the Conservatives to scrutinize Canada's spy service admits he didn't do his homework before entering into a business arrangement with a Montrealer infamous for alleged roles in coup plots and arms deals.
"I didn't look at his background," said Arthur Porter, chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), in an interview. Distancing himself from this short-lived partnership, he added that "this was an opportunity that was put in front of me, somebody said this fellow had the ability to source infrastructure funding for projects in Africa."
It emerged this week that Dr. Porter, an oncologist who was born in Sierra Leone, recently struck a business deal with Montreal's Ari Ben-Menashe, a globetrotting consultant. While neither illegal nor a clear conflict of interest, it has raised eyebrows given that SIRC is the government watchdog agency in charge of reviewing the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
CSIS, involved in controversial secret-intelligence work, has long deflected criticisms by saying that the robust review regimen it lives under ensures top-notch spy work.
It is SIRC's job to dredge up and probe activities that CSIS doesn't want to let the public know about. Yet SIRC's small staff is run by civilian board whose members work only on a part-time basis.
Past chairs have tended to be lawyers, provincial premiers or retired cabinet members, but the Conservative government picked Dr. Porter, a career cancer specialist, to do the job.
Like all board members, he is allowed to have outside business interests. "There is absolutely no conflict between my role in security and any givebacks I do with Sierra Leone," he said in the interview.
He explained he was looking to help one of his Sierra Leone-based enterprises secure millions of dollars in infrastructure-financing when he paid a $200,000 consultant's fee to Mr. Ben-Menashe. The fee, Dr. Porter said, was returned to him when the investment did not materialize.
But Opposition politicians say the arrangement raises questions about judgment. "This is casting a shadow on the agency," said NDP public safety critic Jasbir Sandhu. He said it falls upon Prime Minister Stephen Harper to order an investigation into the SIRC chair's business dealings.
Mr. Ben-Menashe, an Iranian-born Jew who worked for the Israeli government prior to getting Canadian citizenship, said on Tuesday that he did not want to comment on the matter.
But his myriad dealings in Africa have been documented in many court proceedings. A decade ago, he used secret video recordings to frame Zimbabwe's Opposition Leader in an alleged coup plot, before going to work for that politician's archrival, President Robert Mugabe.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Ben-Menashe was arrested on U.S. allegations that he sold weapons to Iran. Following his acquittal, he wrote a memoir called Profits of War.
Dr. Porter, who insists he did nothing wrong, defends a letter he once wrote on government letterhead on behalf of Mr. Ben-Menashe, who solicited the help when he found that he was having trouble with the government freezing his accounts at the Bank of Montreal.
"I usually write those letter of recommendations to say that 'X has not done anything bad to me. If you have a problem give me a call,'" Dr. Porter said. "… And I gave a number. That's what I generally do if I don't know anyone too well."