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The culture of national security is going through a classic philosophical and terminology transition. Inputs to this process are varied and widely disparate in source and intensity. Canada, Britain, the United States, France and other democracies are at the centre of this transition. As the instruments of national security should be about protecting democracy, the transition on the meaning of national security in democracies makes profound sense.

Enumeration of these diverse inputs helps shape the intellectual challenge. WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden's "treasonous" distribution of sensitive material, the renewed battle for Fallujah in Iraq, terrorism in Russia, the carnage in Syria (with hundreds of foreign Islamist fighters attracted from the West),‎ even the impact of Colorado's marijuana legalization on the war on drugs – all are either central or peripheral inputs to this transition.

At one end of this process are the legal and technical definitions of national security, permitted or proscribed covert actions in defence of national security‎, definitions of legislative oversight (real for most actual democracies, save Canada), targeting of nationals, interagency co-operation, rules of engagement and the rest. Suggesting that changes are not necessary in these areas is akin to suggesting that the events of 9/11 changed nothing.

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The increase in intrusive and digital technologies, use of digitally controlled long-range drones for surveillance, targeting and combat also‎ cry out for inclusion in any normative rethink of laws and practices. The United States and Britain have begun this process, but the silence from Canada's federal ministers, bureaucrats and agency heads is deafening. One senses the hope that less complex areas of focus by the press and opposition will spare Canadians and their government any similar rethink completely.

To his credit, Chuck Strahl, chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, a group of distinguished privy councillors who review complaints about CSIS, recently indicated that in a democracy, asking questions‎ (with appropriate prudence) about how national security operates is a good thing. And he did so publicly in front of a Senate committee.

But there is no Senate or Commons committee in Canada with the authority or security clearance necessary to conduct such a review, which again separates us from the United States and Britain. Nor is there any likely prospect of Parliament having a thoughtful debate about the future of national security, its purposes, dimensions and frameworks without folks on all sides pointing to excesses of the past under various governments‎ – the ultimate "gotcha" dialectic no working journalist could resist. This exercise in futility is precisely what those opposed to any modernization of our national security culture would most enjoy.

National security is a government's first duty to citizens, who have the right to expect that it will ensure freedom from fear, freedom from violence, freedom from foreign or domestic subversion that could threaten peace, order, public safety, freedom itself, democracy and the impartial rule of law. Elaborating and discussing the future context, exigencies and culture of national security is an important social and political undertaking.

A royal commission that laid out the issues and challenges, held open and in camera hearings, and wrung out any and all partisanship from the process would serve our country and this government well. It is high time.

Senator Hugh Segal is a former chair of the Special Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism and present member of the standing committee on security and national defence.

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