Sunday, March 09, 2014

Parliamentary oversight at work

On January 29th, James Bezan, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence, assured the House of Commons that improved parliamentary oversight of the Canadian intelligence community is unnecessary because existing committees already have the power to provide oversight (previous discussion here):
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.
The screen capture reproduced above demonstrates that Mr. Bezan did indeed have a straight face as he made those comments.

On February 4th, the Conservatives defeated a Liberal motion that called on the government to establish a special intelligence oversight committee. Bezan once again took the lead in arguing against the motion:
The member is calling for more parliamentary oversight, yet Parliament has always had the ability to have these individuals appear before committee. I sit on the national defence committee, and CSEC is one of the agencies that is responsible under the Department of National Defence. Our committee has the power at any point in time to call on those people who are appointed either as the chief or commissioner of Communications Security Establishment Canada. We can call them in to talk about budget and activities.
The committee the Liberals are advocating would have a wider remit, covering all national security agencies, not just CSEC, and unlike normal committees, its members would be cleared to receive classified information.

But it is true that the National Defence committee could provide some additional oversight of CSEC—as long as the government is willing to permit it to perform that role.

On February 13th, the members of the committee voted to "invite the Minister of National Defence and the Chief of Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) as witnesses to appear before the Committee to answer questions about CSEC's intelligence-gathering policies and practices, for one hour each, as soon as possible."

But on March 6th, the day the Minister and CSEC Chief John Forster were scheduled to appear, the committee unexpectedly went in camera and cancelled the session. The minutes of the discussion show that no new appearance date has been sought. The committee agreed to invite the Minister back to discuss the departmental Estimates, but the only formal decision made with respect to CSEC was "That the speaking notes for the Minister of National Defence on the Supplementary Estimates (C) 2013-14 and Communications Security Establishment Canada intelligence-gathering policies and practices, distributed today, be handed over to the Clerk."

Why was the session cancelled?

We don't know. But it is hard not to suspect that it was the government, which ultimately controls the committee's agenda through its majority membership on the committee, that made the decision.

Is that supposed to be oversight?

[Update 4 April 2014: Forster and Nicholson testified to the committee on April 3rd.]


Blogger Alison said...

A small clarification re
But on March 6th, the day the Minister and CSEC Chief John Forster were scheduled to appear, the committee unexpectedly went in camera and cancelled the session

I made some inquiries re the point you raised and this is the reply I received. Excerpted:
"As you may or may not know, issues discussed while in a parliamentary committee is in camera cannot be shared with those not present at said committee.
That said, I would first correct you that the Minister of Defence and the head of CSEC were scheduled to appear on Tuesday March 4th, not Thursday March 6th. I mention that because if you read the last section of the CBC article posted below, it may give you some insight into what happened.
~~~ end of excerpt ~~~~

The opening minutes/evidence from March 4 has Peter Kent referring to "Apologies for the vicissitudes of parliamentary procedure" and what looks a rearrangement to move up witnesses from the second hour.

Thank you for all you do here,

March 14, 2014 4:16 pm  
Blogger Bill Robinson said...

Thanks for checking into this, Alison.

It is certainly possible that Defence Minister Nicholson and CSEC Chief Forster were originally scheduled for the 4th, although as you've already seen, the minutes/evidence from the 4th show no sign that they were actually there on that date. I do know, however, that as of Wednesday night, Nicholson and Forster definitely were scheduled to appear before the committee on the 6th. Not only did the notice of the meeting then on the parliamentary website list them as the sole witnesses for that date, but the office of one of the committee members was soliciting last-minute ideas for possible questions for the two for that date.

The sudden vote on Thursday morning mentioned in the CBC article, apparently designed to shut down the testimony of the Chief Electoral Officer at a different committee, does seem to explain why the Defence Committee didn't start its meeting, which was scheduled for 11 am to 1 pm, until 11:37.

We still don't know why it didn't then proceed to hear its scheduled witnesses. Perhaps the committee decided that it didn't have enough time at that point to give a proper hearing to Nicholson and Forster.

Still, it would be nice to have some assurance that Forster in particular will actually appear before the committee at some point in the reasonably near future.

One way or another the government controls the agendas of all parliamentary committees, and if the National Defence committee fails to exercise even this minimal level of oversight over CSEC it will be because the government either wanted that outcome or made no effort to ensure a different outcome.

Thanks again for the helpful comment!

March 14, 2014 7:06 pm  

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