Michael Kergin is a former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. and senior adviser to Bennett Jones LLP. Greg Fyffe is a former executive director of intelligence assessment for the Privy Council Office. Jim Mitchell is a former senior official in the Privy Council Office.
A critical debate will take place in the new year to determine the impact on our national security of disseminating highly-sensitive intelligence. The consequences could be severe. If the wrong decision is made, and the government allows the House of Commons to decide which classified material can be given to MPs or made public, Canada’s access to intelligence from allies and sources of information could be gravely endangered.
During the previous parliamentary session, rulings by House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota upheld the right of the House to order the government to produce documents, without redactions, on the firing of two scientists from the Level 4 National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. The Speaker ruled earlier this month that the order for the release of the papers died with the dissolution of the House on Aug. 15. It would have to be passed again by the current Parliament.
The government has again proposed a process whereby the vetting of the secret documents would be done by an all-party committee, with a panel of three retired senior judges deciding what could be made public. The Conservative Party has rejected this compromise. They should reconsider; the consequences of prolonging this dispute could be damaging for Canada’s intelligence and security agencies.
The Opposition has proposed that the law clerk of the House examine the files in question and suggest what must be held back from release. Even if the law clerk were to have the final word regarding the release of material, vetting sensitive documents requires a detailed knowledge of intelligence and security information, including an assessment of the consequences of not protecting it. Furthermore, decisions taken by the law clerk, without specialized advice from government-approved experts, would be a breach of Canada’s international obligations.
Canada receives information from intelligence partners such as the Five Eyes (the U.K., the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Canada) and NATO on two conditions. First, releasing or sharing intelligence is controlled by the country of origin, not by the recipient country. Second, sensitive information is shared with Canada on the basis of reciprocal security standards. Canadian intelligence is shared with allies on the same basis.
The government is accountable to our allies for enforcing standards and backing them up with laws restricting the disclosure of secrets. Our allies would simply not accept that the exigencies of a minority Parliament would oblige the government to void established secrecy laws and agreements by turning over improperly vetted sensitive material to parliamentarians without security clearance.
Two further factors complicate release. First, information from intelligence reports may be incorporated into other classified documents. Second, even a document that appears innocuous may lead to the unmasking of a protected foreign source. Releasing such documents would be a gift to hostile intelligence powers.
Canada must protect its own sources and methods, whether they are people or electronic sources such as wiretapping. Potential sources with knowledge of violent extremism within Canada, for example, would be more reluctant to share their information with the security agencies if they could be identified through analyses of released material. If the government lost its ability to judge what information can be released, we could see a severe degradation of Canada’s domestic-intelligence capacity.
Internationally, any risk to Canadian intelligence sources brought about by the release of sensitive material could lead to a reduction of the analysis and policy capacity of Global Affairs Canada, whether the subject is China, Russia, Iran, Afghanistan or climate change. Secret intelligence is used by all foreign ministries and is indispensable to national sovereignty. Any weakening would put Canada at a severe disadvantage. Our most important intelligence relationship – with the United States – would also be gravely undermined by any loss of confidence in the government’s ability to safeguard its sensitive information.
The opposition seeks assurances that everything that can be released is released. This is an essential requirement of our democratic system. The government must be transparent with the public regarding the information it possesses and can responsibly share. But the government also must remain accountable for the security of information it obtains from domestic sources or allies.
The government’s compromise offer in the case of the scientists is a win for the opposition. Not only does the opposition participate in the process, impartial arbiters will provide assurances that the opposition and the public will receive the maximum amount of information that can be released without harm to Canada’s security and intelligence capacity. The proposal is also an excellent precedent for resolving future issues around sensitive security information.
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