Canada’s proposed new security oversight is a good thing

After much delay, the  Trudeau government announced today that it will introduce legislation into the House of Commons that contains a significant overhaul on how this country’s security intelligence community operates.  Bill C-59 is wide-ranging in scope and seeks to address some of the concerns Canadians raised over the previous Harper government’s C-51, passed in the wake of back-to-back terrorist attacks in October 2014.

Among the provisions are clarification on what constitutes ‘terrorism propaganda’, a requirement that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) obtain court approval in carrying out ‘disruption’ operations that may violate Constitutional rights, and rejigging the ‘no-fly’ provisions so that 6-year olds no longer get pulled off flights just because they happen to share surnames with a known terrorist.  Predictably for Canadian politics, the Conservatives (who passed C-51) accuse the Liberals of ‘watering down’ our security while the NDP says the bill does not go far enough to protect Canadians’ privacy.

I would like to focus my comments on one important aspect of the proposed law, the creation of a ‘super civilian watchdog’ to review security and intelligence agencies across all of government (meaning all agencies that have a role in the intelligence community: previous frameworks looked at these agencies in a piecemeal fashion).  Canada had been a bit of an outlier among its closest allies in not having such a review body.  The changes are a good thing for a variety of reasons:

a) today’s intelligence and national security is increasingly connected and no agency can do it all on its own.  Having one review agency for all of them makes sense.  In addition, these agencies must share intelligence in a timely fashion and having clear rules on how to do so will both enhance our safety and make sure it is done properly.

b) Canadians have registered serious concerns over what its spies do and why they do it.  Having a civilian agency will, one hopes, help to overcome some of these issues as it explains the details to our citizens.

c) As good as CSIS, the RCMP, CSE and others are at national security, and they are very good, everyone can benefit from oversight.  Waiting this long to establish credible oversight was, ahem, an oversight by several governments.  Crucially, these agencies were part of the consultative process and, based on what I have been told, are not averse to having to submit to review.

There are outstanding questions, of course. Who will be chosen to sit on this body?  What kinds of access will they have to the ongoing operations of the constituent organisations?  What power will they exercise?  How full and honest will their report back to Canadians be?

On the first question it would be a good idea if the committee had a broad variety of members.  Those elected should come from the worlds of academe, former practitioners, human rights organisations and the legal profession at a minimum.   Loading it with all academics, for example, would result in a less capable, less knowledgeable and less effective team.  Just like Canada, more diversity is better.

So we will see where all this goes.  Yes, it took too long but at least we can see the light at the end of the oversight tunnel.  And that indeed is a good thing for Canadians.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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