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Senator Colin Kenny

TOM HANSON/CP

It is the job of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to unravel dark mysteries that threaten the well-being of Canadians. That's what spooks do; sometimes they're even tempted to break the law doing it.

Well, here is a mystery that desperately needs unravelling: Why is the government dismantling the most effective instrument it has to prevent CSIS operatives from taking the law into their own hands?

I have spent almost three decades poking my nose into senseless government decisions. Usually you can find a clear, self-serving motive behind them. But I confess that the Harper government's sneaky little announcement buried in the budget papers that it has decided to scupper the office of the inspector-general of CSIS leaves me baffled.

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Yes, we know that this government is extremely thin-skinned. But the inspector-general for CSIS isn't an office that criticizes government. It critiques CSIS behaviour on behalf of the government. Its role is to ensure that the government doesn't get blindsided by shady behaviour on the part of its intelligence agents.

Or, in the words of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, spoken in 2010, "The inspector-general performs an important review function that supports me in my role as minister and ensures that CSIS is operating within the law and complying with current policies."

Exactly right. The government can't be seen to be interfering with intelligence gathering, but it needs to be kept informed on whether CSIS is following policy guidelines and respecting laws. That's why the Macdonald commission that helped set up the ground rules for CSIS insisted upon inclusion of the office of the inspector-general.

Why would any government throw away that perfectly designed, arm's-length conduit between itself and its intelligence agency? To save a million dollars a year – the only reason Mr. Toews has given for snuffing the position. Such small savings could be found in a myriad of less destructive places.

The minister says that the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) – which also oversees CSIS – can handle the inspector-general's responsibilities. SIRC is composed of civilians appointed by the government. Its mandate is to report to Parliament annually as to whether CSIS is using its investigative powers appropriately. The problem with counting on SIRC to play this role on its own is two-fold:

(a) commissioners are civilians who don't always have the expertise to ask the right questions and examine the right files to get to the truth of any matter; (b) if all the current commissioners appointed by the Harper government had outstanding credentials for the job at hand, it would help. That isn't the case.

Inspectors-general have had significant experience in the intelligence community. The individual will often be on testy terms with former colleagues who don't like someone looking over their shoulder – and that's how it should be.

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If Mr. Toews had wanted to do something useful, he would have expanded the concept of inspector-general of CSIS to other federal intelligence-gatherers, of which there are roughly a dozen, including the RCMP. Most of these intelligence operations are inadequately scrutinized. Setting up an inspector-general-type of agency to oversee all of them would have been a great move. It would have reassured the public that while this government is serious about law and order, it is also serious about maintaining the legality and integrity of the federal institutions involved in law and order. Instead, it is neutering its only oversight structure that works well.

Does the government really want to have its spooks doing unseemly things, out there on their own? Does it want to be light years away if – God forbid – those unseemly things should happen to come to light? As cynical as one can be about this government, I would have trouble imagining that scenario.

The government has been entrusted with a valuable tool to ensure the integrity of its intelligence agency, and it is throwing that tool away for reasons nobody can understand.

Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate committee on national security and defence.

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