Canada’s national security agencies need parliamentary oversight

Posted on May 18, 2015 in Governance Policy Context – Opinion/Commentary – In this era of enormous complexity and ambiguity, the need for oversight on intelligence agencies should be a national priority.
May 17 2015.   By: Grant Mitchell Roméo Dallaire and Hugh Segal,

Canadians understand that throughout our history we have always needed a fine balance between our cherished freedoms and security. Though these issues may seem especially critical today, Canadians have struggled with them through world wars and periods of economic turmoil and unrest.

Some of the decisions Canada has made in the past, such as the internment of Japanese-Canadian citizens during the Second World War, are today recognized as a national shame. Both our history and law reflect the lessons that we have learned from the past, that a democratic society cannot take for granted our fundamental rights and freedoms, and that we cannot allow excess or abuse in the name of national security.

While Parliament’s primary function in Canada is to hold the government to account, we continually defer to the executive branch on matters of intelligence and national security. A handful of ministers are charged with guiding the operational policies and decision-making of our national security services, yet there is no oversight mechanism in place to hold them to account.

Internationally, our Five Eyes intelligence allies (Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the U.S.) and the majority of our NATO colleagues, all have oversight capability on national security matters. Their systems of governance allow for cleared legislators to evaluate the effectiveness of their government’s decisions, resources, training and plans. The absence of oversight in Canada is rather unusual among Western democracies and presents a glaring difference between us and our allies.

Currently, Canadian parliamentarians have no access to confidential and high-level information about national security institutions and policies, yet they approve billion-dollar budgets and pass bills that affect Canadian national security and civil liberties. As representatives of Canadians, they make integral decisions in the absence of information.

To strengthen our security services, we must provide our security agencies with more than just additional powers and funding, as the government’s Bill C-51 would do; we must provide them with the necessary tools to use these powers responsibly. Failing to do so provides a serious gap in any proposed solution.

Last spring, we introduced Bill S-220 in the Senate, a bill which would create a committee of parliamentarians on national security and intelligence oversight. Modelled after the proven United Kingdom system, the committee would be composed of members from both the House of Commons and the Senate, and from differing political stripes. The members would be sworn to an oath of secrecy for life.

Under this model, select parliamentarians would be empowered to review national security activities. They could examine the effectiveness of anti-terror and security forces, and facilitate a more consultative process between national security agencies and parliamentarians.

With increasingly complex technologies and information sharing, the committee could also ensure that the actions of national security and intelligence agencies are compliant with the Charter.

Parliamentary scrutiny could help determine the right balance to strike between national security and privacy for Canadians, rather requiring costly litigation in the aftermath.

Ultimately, the government and our national security agencies must be held accountable to our parliamentary institutions in a way that they aren’t today. A national security oversight committee would round out the patchwork, part-time, retroactive, and complaints-based review process under which our national security and intelligence agencies currently operate.

Bill S-220 is currently before the Senate, but has seen little movement due to reluctance on the part of the government. The view that oversight is “unnecessary red tape” is narrow-minded; when in fact, oversight offsets the very excesses that aren’t acceptable in a parliamentary democracy.

The criticism that the opposition cannot be trusted is also unfounded, as many other Westminster parliamentary democracies like the U.K. have successfully employed parliamentary oversight committees for past decades, all without a breach in security and with very successful results.

In this era of enormous complexity and ambiguity, the need for oversight on intelligence agencies charged with protecting our national security and the freedom from fear of all law-abiding Canadians is an appropriate and signal national priority. With the likelihood that Bill C-51 will pass, the need for parliamentary oversight is all the more pressing. With great power comes great responsibility, and with increased powers comes the need for enhanced oversight.

Senator Grant Mitchell is deputy chair of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire is a former senator and deputy chair of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. Master Hugh Segal is a former senator and chair of the Special Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism and current master of Massey College.

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