Thursday, January 30, 2014

Parliamentary oversight? Who needs it?

Yesterday former solicitor general Wayne Easter once again asked the government to consider establishing a special parliamentary committee to monitor the activities of CSEC and other Canadian intelligence agencies. (Previous discussion here.)

The government's response? Easter got the brush-off from James Bezan, the parliamentary secretary to Minister of National Defence Rob Nicholson:
Mr. Speaker, I should remind the hon. member that in actuality, Parliament has the power, through its committees, to call agencies before the committee that is responsible for them. The Standing Committee on National Defence has the authority and the power to call the commissioner of the Communications Security Establishment as well as Communications Security Establishment Canada before committee. It also has the opportunity, if it so desires, to meet with CSEC staff on its premises. They have a new building that members could easily tour around.

Those opportunities already exist. Parliamentary oversight is already in place. We do not need to be reinventing the wheel.
As Bezan knows (if he did his homework) the committee proposed by Easter, and earlier by the Martin government, is very different from the Standing Committee on National Defence. Notably, it would consist of members from both houses of parliament, it would examine all national security agencies, and its members would be authorized to receive classified information, enabling it to examine the operations of those agencies in much greater detail than is possible today.

Whether it would be wise to provide classified information to such a committee may be open to question. I'm inclined to think that parliamentarians would do better to push for much more extensive and regular reporting of unclassified information, which could then be openly discussed and debated, than for a small group to receive information that they would then be unable to discuss or even allude to outside the confines of their secure briefing room.

Even if you believe, however, that some form of significant parliamentary oversight of CSEC and other agencies could be accommodated under the current committee system, there is no excuse for the essentially negligible oversight currently provided by those committees.

Bezan's claim that "parliamentary oversight is already in place" because the Standing Committee on National Defence already has the power to examine CSEC might be at least marginally credible if the government, which controls the agenda of the committee through its majority Conservative membership, would task it to actually provide such oversight.

For what it's worth, the Senate seems to be making some effort in that regard... (H/T to Ron Deibert.)

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