Ottawa is rejecting calls for parliamentary oversight of the nation's spies, dismissing such increased scrutiny as "needless red tape."
Conservatives on Sunday defended their controversial new anti-terrorism legislation, which has faced criticism for massively expanding the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service without added public oversight.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney argued the Security Intelligence Review Committee, a five-member body that investigates complaints against CSIS, is enough.
"We can be very proud of what they are doing," he said about SIRC on CTV's Question Period. "Anything additional would be just duplication."
The anti-terrorism legislation, which was unveiled Friday, would give CSIS the right to disrupt terrorist activity, such as by pulling suspected terrorists off planes or messing with their bank accounts. A judge would have to sign off on such actions ahead of time. The legislation would also make it easier to arrest people for promoting terrorism.
Critics say there are not enough checks on these new powers. They are calling on the government to mandate direct scrutiny from the House of Commons by, for example, having a committee of MPs oversee CSIS.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not address these concerns at a public appearance Sunday. In a short speech at a Vietnamese New Year celebration in Mississauga, he said his government will "always stand with you in support of human dignity and freedom for all people," but made no direct references to the anti-terrorism bill. He did not take questions.
His caucus members, however, went toe-to-toe with opposition critics on the airwaves.
"What is absolutely missing in this legislation is oversight, oversight, oversight," Liberal MP Wayne Easter, a former solicitor-general, said on Question Period. "That's what's needed for two things. One: to ensure that the new powers in this new legislation that agencies will be granted will not infringe on the privacy rights of Canadians. Two: to ensure that the agencies are using their powers within the law."
Tory MP Roxanne James hit back.
"We are not interested in creating needless red tape," she said. "We are interested in bringing forward measures that are going to actually give the security agencies, law enforcement … the tools they need to better combat the real threat of terrorism in this country."
Marco Mendicino, a former Crown attorney who helped prosecute the Toronto 18 terror case, said the proposed legislation takes CSIS far from its original mandate, which was to simply gather information and pass it to police if necessary.
Giving judges the responsibility of signing off on CSIS's plans ahead of time is also a significant change, he said. Typically, when judges are asked to adjudicate potential government violations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is to decide after the fact if someone's rights have been violated – not to sign off on proposed government activity beforehand.
"It can amount to an implied notwithstanding clause. This is a fundamental departure from what we conventionally ask judges to do," Mr. Mendicino, who is seeking the Liberal nomination in Toronto's Eglinton-Lawrence riding, said in an interview.
"It is a practically unprecedented sanctioning of state conduct which could breach Charter rights."
Mr. Mendicino said that, as such powers are expanded, oversight must be proportionate to that expansion. But he said it is too early to know if SIRC will be able to handle oversight of the new powers itself.
The federal government created the SIRC in 1984, the same year as CSIS, to keep an eye on Canada's new spy agency.
SIRC has faced trouble recently, with former chair Chuck Strahl resigning last year after it was revealed he had signed up as a lobbyist for the Northern Gateway pipeline project. Another former chair, Arthur Porter, is currently imprisoned in Panama, while Canada tries to extradite him to face bribery allegations unrelated to his work at SIRC.
The government also left two SIRC seats unfilled for months after Mr. Strahl's departure. They filled one seat Thursday, shortly before unveiling the anti-terror legislation, appointing Ian Holloway, dean of law at the University of Calgary. The fifth seat remains vacant.
SIRC's acting chair, former Conservative MP Deborah Grey, told The Globe and Mail she would not weigh in on concerns about oversight: "In our review of CSIS, we review them when they are past events, not operational or active oversight. We don't comment on legislation. We will just follow it."