Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Transparency fail II, part C

The Powers that Post have finally acted to correct their mistaken link to the missing CSE Report on Plans and Priorities (previous blog posts here and here). But the news is not good.

Instead of a working link to the document, we now see the following text:
Communications Security Establishment Canada (for security reasons, the Communications Security Establishment Canada Report on Plans and Priorities and the Departmental Performance Report are exempted from disclosure.)
This is an enormous backward step for transparency and public (and parliamentary) accountability for CSE.

As I pointed out earlier, the result will be that a wide range of information that CSE has been reporting publicly through the equivalent DND documents for 15 years will now no longer be made available.

The announcement also reveals that there will be no public Departmental Performance Report forthcoming from CSE.

CSIS also does not produce public versions of these documents, and presumably the government's argument is that CSE should follow the same practice for the same security reasons.

But there is a difference. The information that CSE will no longer be reporting has been reported publicly for 15 years. Where is the evidence -- or even the assertion! -- that the release of this information has caused sufficiently serious security problems to outweigh the public interest in transparency/accountability concerning this agency? Where is the evidence -- or even the assertion -- that the security practices of the past 15 years (most of that time in the "post-911 world") will not suffice for the future?

Not only will this decision mean less accountability for the routine operations of the agency, it will also mean little or no reporting on the state of CSE's new headquarters project -- a billion-dollar-plus construction project that, counting operations and maintenance over its 30-year projected life, will ultimately cost the taxpayer more than $4 billion. Are we supposed now to wait for the Auditor General to examine its workings in order to find out whether this project is proceeding successfully or has begun to exhibit difficulties? Surely no one expects us to rely on the Minister of National Defence to keep the public fully apprised of its status.

The implication of the government's statement is that CSE will be producing internal, non-publicly-releasable versions of the Report on Plans and Priorities and Departmental Performance Report (although if so, who will they be for? Ministers and civil servants have their own internal reporting documents and procedures, and parliamentarians would have no more access to classified versions of the Report on Plans and Priorities and Departmental Performance Report than the general public does). Such documents might contain much more detailed information than has been reported by CSE in the past. If that were the case, then the government's decision not to release the full documents might be understandable.

But why not continue to release the kinds of information that have been released in the past?

Does CSE intend to include some or all of this information in its annual report? That would still be a step backward because it would provide after-the-fact reporting instead of timely information about current and planned activities. But it would be much better than no reporting at all.

If CSE intends to do this, however, it has given parliament and the public no sign of its plans to date. Does it even intend to issue an annual report? No clues on that point either.

[Update 19 June 2012: If CSIS's practices are any guide, some of the missing budget numbers will eventually turn up in the Public Accounts. But like the information that may be included in the annual report, this would be after-the-fact reporting. The information available in the most recent edition of the Public Accounts is that for FY 2010-11. The missing information included projections out to FY 2014-15.]

CSE has already been exempted from the requirement to produce quarterly financial reports.

It is also exempt from the government's proactive disclosure requirements.

Now we find that it has been exempted from the requirement to produce the Report on Plans and Priorities and the Departmental Performance Report, at least in their public incarnations.

Can it be long before the monthly public reporting of CSE's staffing level is also cancelled? Monthly staffing information has been reported in one form or another for at least 32 years, but that is no guarantee that even this reporting will continue.

CSE is larger, more capable, and armed with broader and potentially far more intrusive legal powers now than at any time in its past. It is on track to get even larger, even more capable, and even more potentially intrusive.

Surely now is not the time to black out the minimal level of transparency that has slowly been built up around its capabilities and operations.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Might find this of interest, given the receding view from public disclosure you've noted:


June 15, 2012 12:40 pm  
Blogger Bill Robinson said...

Thanks for the tip!

Looks like an interesting paper.

June 16, 2012 9:41 pm  

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