Last week was a busy news week. There was an attack on the British Parliament, Trump made the news (this is actually a daily occurrence), and what you may not have noticed was the last vestiges of a strong intelligence oversight plan disappearing in Canada. You can be forgiven for it, not many people knew about, not many people seemed to care, and that was something the government seemed to be well aware of.
Now perhaps the “last vestiges” is a bit of an embellishment and an exaggeration on my part, but only “perhaps” because consider how long it has taken for the Canadian government to take seriously the issue of intelligence oversight, and actually put forth a bill to deal with it. The answer, to put it simply, is a very long time. The last real attempt at reform came back in the days of the creation of CSIS, over 30 years ago. When the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) was created it was only meant to review CSIS activities, not the RCMP, which has now once again entered the world of counter-intelligence (that worked out great before CSIS remember?) and it also doesn’t cover all the other intelligence divisions of the military, or the Canadian Security Establishment (CSE) which is responsible for signals intelligence. Everyone has their own method of “oversight.” Getting the government to take oversight seriously is a big deal, the last major overhaul required a Royal Commission and public scandal and this time it required significant public concern over the Harper government’s bill C-51 or what became the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015.
The Liberals you may recall campaigned on making sure that proper oversight would be in place to deal with the new powers Harper’s government gave Canada’s intelligence agencies and to placate all that public uproar. But that was so 2015! It was ages ago in the world of the internet news cycle and the lack of attention bill C-22 received seems to have confirmed just how short of an attention span all that moral outrage and citizen concern had.
So what happened last week? Bill C-22, the bill designed to create a Parliamentarian oversight committee that would have access to everything it could ever want in terms of information about intelligence agencies and activities (at least that’s how the Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale liked to advertise it) was gutted by the Trudeau Liberals. I don’t use the term “gutted” lightly, but let’s talk turkey here. It was gutted. The Parliament committee that was made up of members from all the parties in the House made improvements to the original Liberal plan and the governing Liberals rejected the most important of them. So what does that mean? It means that the new oversight committee will be handpicked by the Prime Minister, and perhaps most importantly, the committee could be denied the ability to see information if it could prove injurious to national security, and a Minister makes that determination, not a court. That’s right, the committee that is supposed to be responsible for overseeing the intelligence community which (I’m often told) is responsible for national security, will not be able to see information if it may injure national security. The bill will go to the Senate soon and one can only hope the new “non-partisan” Senate will try to inject some actual oversight power back into the bill but I wouldn’t hang much on that. What will sting the most for some is the government advertising its new committee as having kept its campaign promises even though those in the know realize that this isn’t true.
I was never a fan of a Parliamentary oversight committee as a means of oversight, primarily because I take issue with the lack of oversight on Parliamentarians. Many of the intelligence scandals in our past (that we know of) began with orders from the government not rogue intelligence officers. Still, I was open minded. Perhaps bill C-22 was meant to placate the intelligence community? Perhaps, but if so, it’s both foolish and shortsighted to think that this type of oversight is good for the intelligence community. At the end of the day, bill C-22 will not protect the intelligence community from scandal, let’s get that straight, it’s designed to protect the sitting government from scandal. Politicians will likely be more than willing to throw the intelligence community under the bus if required, except with this bill, it will have to wait until a new government comes in and the new one will use the oversight committee to throw mud at the old one. Rinse wash repeat. This kind of oversight that the Liberals are trying to push through can easily become a means of playing politics with serious issues, and it likely will.
The real devil here isn’t the government or the intelligence community or politics. The real demon and Shadow King (to borrow from Marvel comics) is – secrecy. This has haunted and plagued Canadians from having any meaningful level of intelligence oversight or real transparency and freedom to information. Governments in Canada have been slavish followers and believers, worshiping at the alter of secrecy believing that if all were truly revealed the sky would fall, Canada’s allies would abandon intelligence sharing (insert other fears here) and on and on we go. It shouldn’t take scandal to have reform. It shouldn’t take public outrage or public disgust with government. It should take responsible and real leadership to admit change has to come. Instead we are left with governments devoted to policing the effects of problems rather than the causes. In the case of bill C-22, it was created to deal not with the cause of lack of oversight (which was the devotion to secrecy) it instead dealt with the effects of improper oversight which was citizen discontent and concern. So the government “investigated” and “debated” and held “consultations” all designed to placate a citizenry into accepting the idea that “don’t worry, we’re dealing with your discontent and doing something” and then bill C-22 was the something. It didn’t have to solve the root cause of the problem of poor oversight, just the effects. The thing is about governing this way is that the endless decision-making that often takes place leads to nothing being decided. So we are left with in bill C-22, an oversight plan with so much built into it to avoid oversight. And again, it’s secrecy that is the culprit. The government’s desires to hide information, the insecurity of the national security oversight plan, is at the root of bill C-22’s failures. The government would do well to learn from our intelligence history, and from other nations, that secrecy is what leads to scandal. It’s ability to protect is limited and fleeting and should only be reserved to protect real threats to security, to protect agents, current investigative methods, and active operations, but not from the body designed to investigate all this! An independent oversight body, working in conjunction with experts and the courts, would have been a serious attempt at oversight and actually could protect the intelligence community if they were in the right, and the public if they were the victim of abuse by members of the intelligence community, as well as getting to the bottom of who should be held responsible. How would that play out? I don’t know, that was the government’s job, but they passed on it. So in sum, goodbye oversight, we never really met, the public didn’t really know you were planning on stopping in, but you seemed like an interesting fellow. Maybe one day you’ll be back. Of course the current “oversight” mechanisms in each agency and institution are not departing, we will just continue to know little about them as usual, which includes measuring their effectiveness.
One would think that with all the scandal and history the government and intelligence community have faced, not just in this country but in others, that they’d have figured out how to deal with that demon of secrecy, figured out the biggest lie, the biggest secret.
Because you see, I will share a secret and tell you the big lie, the big secret about secrecy. Nothing stays secret forever.
Follow bill c-22’s status here