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Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the Langevin Block in Ottawa, June 21, 2010.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Let's face it: no one is in charge of Canadian security

The job of ensuring Canada's security should belong to Prime Minister Harper, not to Richard Fadden. Mr. Harper should give urgent consideration to establishing a national security czar.

No one is in charge of the security of Canada. That is the frightening message from John Major after his four years as chair of the Air India Commission.

"There is no single agency at present with responsibility for managing, executing and controlling responses to terrorist threats," Mr. Major, a retired Supreme Court justice, wrote. "No one is in charge."

And who is the closest to being in charge? The answer seems blackly comical. It is Richard Fadden, head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Yes, that Richard Fadden, the one who pointed a finger this week at two unnamed provincial cabinet ministers and other public officials, presumably from ethnic minorities, for allegedly putting other nations' interests ahead of Canada's. Then he backtracked and said it was no big deal. He withdrew the finger of suspicion. As if.

CSIS controls the flow of information about the vast majority of terrorist threats, Mr. Major explained. It may tell the RCMP, Foreign Affairs and other agencies, or it may not. "This leaves CSIS with the de facto ability to determine the how and the when of the government response to a threat," Mr. Major wrote in his report.

Perhaps, then, he might have written, "No one is in charge except, in effect, CSIS. And Mr. Fadden is in charge of CSIS." But the issue is not a personal one. It's structural. The structure of the system places Canadians' security in Mr. Fadden's hands. That's not a comforting place to be.

To say Canada's security apparatus has a structural flaw hardly does the problem justice. A plane without a pilot might also be said to have a structural flaw.

No one is setting strategic priorities for the 16 key agencies that engage in intelligence-gathering. Before the Air India bombings that killed 331 people in June, 1985, CSIS agents followed a key suspect into the woods in Duncan, B.C., where he was part of a group that set off an explosion. The next day, their superiors denied them permission to follow him, and sent them instead on the trail of some Cold War foes. It was the wrong priority. But CSIS didn't have all the information it needed (from the RCMP, among others), to set the right priority. Who, then, was responsible for this failure? Everyone, and no one.

And how much time is CSIS spending today on, for instance, keeping tabs on the relationships that elected officials have with, say, China, as opposed to keeping track of possible terrorists? Who ensures it has its priorities right?

And who reviews those agencies today for effectiveness and competence? Again, no one.

We need a czar

Mr. Major makes a strong case for a national security czar who could set strategic priorities in security intelligence, review competence, make sure information is shared properly and have the ear of the prime minister, who would be accountable for security.

Marie-Lucie Morin is the national-security adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but her mandate is unclear, and limited.

Her role is "manifestly not to co-ordinate the security intelligence community," Martin Rudner, a professor emeritus at the Norman Paterson School for International Affairs at Carleton University, testified at the commission. "There are no resources, instruments or intent."

As an intelligence agency, CSIS worries that its secrets will be exposed in public court hearings. As a law-enforcement agency, the RCMP tries to have little to do with CSIS; it fears that CSIS's information will not be admissible in court. For all the myriad ways things can go wrong as a result, the Air India crash, and its bungled investigation, and mostly failed prosecutions, stand eternally as a lesson.

The possibility of threats falling into the cracks among the two dozen agencies that deal with intelligence is ever-present. That is why the terrorism threat requires "immense co-ordination," Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says. "You're dealing with a threat that has both domestic and foreign components, and it's very hard to separate the two."

The United States opted for a director of national intelligence on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. In the United Kingdom, the prime minister's security adviser chairs the Joint Intelligence Committee, a central agency responsible for security and intelligence. Australia appointed a national security adviser two years ago within the prime minister's department.

Ron Atkey, a former head of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, a CSIS watchdog, told the Air India Commission that Canada is "not mature enough yet to go for a security czar." He elaborated this week: "We're one-tenth the size of the U.S. We're still working out relationships between agencies... . I used the term 'maturity' in the sense of size and development of our respective organizations."

If he is right, it is not terribly comforting. If Canada is not ready to create what he calls "a mini-PMO [Prime Minister's Office]in the security world," are we ready, as it stands, to protect ourselves?

Nine years after Sept. 11, 2001, and 25 years after the biggest act of terrorism in Canadian history, Canada is flying blindly. CSIS controls the information flow to other agencies. CSIS is thus in a position of weighing its own interests against those of law enforcement. It's unreasonable, says Mr. Major, to expect CSIS to decide "against its own interests."

The job of ensuring Canada's security should belong to Prime Minister Harper, not to Richard Fadden. Mr. Harper should give urgent consideration to establishing a national security czar, and to making sure that the lines of responsibility lead ultimately to the prime minister's door.

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this editorial and and an earlier online version mistakenly identified Margaret Bloodworth as still being Prime Minister Stephen Harper's national security adviser. Marie-Lucie Morin has replaced Ms. Bloodworth in that role. This online version has been corrected.