Philippe Lagassé is associate professor and Barton Chair at Carleton University.
Parliament needs its own standing committee that can safely handle classified information and review national-security matters. Canada’s existing committee, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), has MPs and senators as members but is part of the executive, meaning it first reports to the Prime Minister, who then tables a redacted version in Parliament. NSICOP must be rethought.
While this hybrid model worked when the government controlled the House of Commons, NSICOP was never going to cut it when we had a minority Parliament. To reconcile the government’s legitimate concerns about protecting classified information and Parliament’s constitutional power to compel the production of documents, we need a security-cleared national-security committee of Parliament.
National security can’t become a tool of partisan feuding
Last spring, the House of Commons demanded that the government hand over documents related to the firing of two scientists at the National Microbiology Lab. The government refused, arguing that releasing the documents in an unsecured parliamentary setting risked national security. This led to a standoff between the Speaker of the House and executive, with the government going to Federal Court over it.
While the government dropped the case before the fall election, the debate remains unresolved. The Liberals have offered compromises, including referring the issue to NSICOP. Undeterred, the Conservatives have continued their efforts to get the documents. After months of critiquing NSICOP, Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole further stated that the Conservatives will boycott the committee.
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National-security experts are dismayed by this partisan sparring, but asking the politicians to stop politicking is not practical. Instead, we need to appreciate why NSICOP was doomed to become a political football, and what we can do to de-escalate this fight and future ones like it.
Although it looks like one, NSICOP is not a parliamentary committee. Its members are parliamentarians, but they serve in an executive capacity. Structuring NSICOP this way was meant to build trust between parliamentarians and the intelligence community, and to provide the committee with the staff and resources needed to conduct effective reviews.
Leaving aside the rather strange notion that parliamentarians must earn the trust of the intelligence services in a democracy, this cautious approach left NSICOP with a fundamental flaw. Formally speaking, sending documents to NSICOP does not meet the requirements of parliamentary privilege and placing our national security committee in the executive has left Parliament without a capacity to securely review classified information.
If one of the legislative houses refuses to back down when demanding classified documents, we are forced to choose between tabling highly sensitive information in an unsecure setting or challenging one of Parliament’s bedrock constitutional authorities.
Transforming NSICOP into a committee of Parliament would untangle this dilemma. Sending classified documents to a parliamentary national-security committee would better address parliamentary privilege and show due respect for Parliament’s constitutional role in holding the executive to account.
At the very least, opposition arguments that the executive is skirting legislative scrutiny would no longer be valid if NSICOP were a parliamentary committee, and the government would not have to take the Speaker to court to stall for time or exploit clever loopholes to limit Parliament’s essential rights.
Luckily, NSICOP itself is up for review this year. It is time to accept that having an executive-based NSICOP is a source of friction and that tinkering with its current structure will not suffice. Parliament needs to embrace responsible, but real, legislative scrutiny of national security.
NSICOP’s members have demonstrated that parliamentarians can be trusted to review classified matters. Whatever misgivings critics may have about the committee, there is no indication that NSICOP has leaked or mishandled information. There is no obvious reason why this would change if it were a parliamentary committee. Properly staffing and resourcing the committee might be difficult, but it’s certainly not insurmountable.
Many of Canada’s allies, in fact, have security-cleared legislative committees or delegations. Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand and Britain all manage to have parliamentarians review classified information in a legislative capacity. The United States, our most important ally and biggest source of intelligence, does as well. We have a wealth of “best practices” and “lessons learned” to draw from these countries.
Unless officials can show that Canadian secrets are somehow special or unique, or that our legislators are a particularly unreliable bunch, we need to get over the idea that a parliamentary national-security committee is too hard or risky to consider.
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