Thursday, May 29, 2014

CSEC goes back under "parliamentary oversight"

Conservative MP John Williamson asked a couple of questions about CSEC's budget and its new headquarters at a meeting of the Standing Committee on National Defence this morning.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson was at the meeting, accompanied by CSEC Chief John Forster and various DND officials, to discuss the 2014-15 Main Estimates. As expected, most questions were about Department of National Defence programs, but Nicholson did receive a couple of softballs concerning CSEC, which he answered himself (Forster never spoke during the session).

The official transcript won't be available for some time, so here is my entirely unofficial transcript of what was said, based on the audio feed (available on this page; CSEC questions start around 43:30):
Williamson: This year the Main Estimates for CSEC: just under $800,000. The estimate to date for last year, for 2013-2014: $410,000.

Nicholson: I think that would be $800 million.

Williamson: Oh, I'm sorry, excuse me, yes, pardon me, pardon me. Thank you. $800 million. It had been $410 million. Could you explain this increase? What has caused this increase? What has caused this sharp rise? Is this a one-time increase or are we going to see this every year going forward?

Nicholson: To a certain extent it is one-time in the sense that this is the new facility that they're moving into and it's a major expenditure needless to say, but that being said the role that CSEC plays is vitally important to this country to protect this country against cyber attacks, cyber crime, international terrorism. But in terms, if you have a look at the breakdown—Mr. Forster might be able to give you some details on this—but, again, in answer directly to your question, it's one-off in the sense that this is a new building that they're moving into and considerable funds, amount of funds, have been allocated to that.

Williamson: Is that a lot of money for a building? Is this something that taxpayers should be concerned about? It seems like an awful lot to spend on a federal building.

Nicholson: You know, these buildings have to be constructed to the highest levels of security, and again we have to build them not just for the requirements of today, we've got them for next year's requirements and the future, and, you know, while I may say to you I hope cyber attacks are going to be decreasing in the next couple of years and I hope there's less of a threat of international terrorism, but I think that would be overly optimistic. And so I believe that it's important that we have the resources, and the facilities, to protect this country at every level.
So there you have it. Another of those rare episodes that the government likes to call parliamentary oversight.

Kudos to the minister for recognizing that the numbers were in the millions, not the thousands.

It is clear that he also knew that the one-time $300-million cash payment to Plenary Properties LTAP LP that will be due on completion of construction of the new headquarters is the primary reason for the huge bump in CSEC's budget this year.

But then he and Williamson both ought to have known that: page 132 of the Main Estimates—the very page that contains the budget numbers Williamson was asking about—clearly states that CSEC's 2014-15 budget includes a "one-time increase of $300.0 million for a contract payment related to delivery of CSE’s new facility in 2014".

So what, I would like to know, was the point of getting that on the record in committee?

As for the rest of Nicholson's answers, it's evident he has no real idea of what he's talking about.

For something more closely approximating real discussion of the issues raised by Williamson's questions, see here and here.

It's possible that other MPs might have asked other CSEC-related questions if the full two-hour meeting of the committee had taken place, but as seems to happen a lot these days the meeting was adjourned after less than a hour due to a parliamentary vote.

Canada has the "Dead Parrot" of parliamentary oversight systems.


Blogger Bill Bell said...

It was a lot more amusing to watch the Dead Parrot sketch.

May 29, 2014 3:31 pm  

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