Why Parliament could use a dose of intelligence

This piece appeared in the online edition of The Ottawa Citizen on November 27, 2017 (

At long last Canada is getting some serious oversight for its intelligence agencies.  Well behind most of our closest allies, including the US and the UK, the Trudeau government has created the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), a $4.5 million body consisting of eight MPS and three senators (five Liberal MPs, two Conservative MPs and one NDP MP, one Liberal senator, one Conservative senator and one independent senator) and supported by a secretariat out of the Privy Council Office.  This is a very good move and one that should be welcomed by Canadians, with conditions.

The new committee will have oversight responsibilities for CSIS, CSE, the RCMP and any other agency that is involved in intelligence operations.  In this manner it is a step up from the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) which looked at CSIS only.   Canada has been an outlier among Western nations in not having a comprehensive oversight and review of its spies.  Organisations like these must by definition function in the dark but on the other hand be subject to the light of examination and scrutiny by legislated bodies.

One item that seems to be unresolved is the contribution from former intelligence professionals.  Christian Leuprecht and Hayley McNorton argued in the Toronto Star that having such people in the Secretariat would improve how NSICOP functions.  Wesley Wark countered in the Hill Times that hiring ex-spies could bring in individuals with ‘baggage of concern’ who were too ‘pal-sy’ with their former employees and hence presumably not objective.

I side strongly with Leuprecht and McNorton on this issue.  In fact, if NSICOP does not bring in experienced intelligence professionals it will waste time getting up to speed and will thus be less effective than it needs to be.  This is for two primary reasons.  First, as Leuprecht and McNorton point out, only three members of NSICOP, Independent Senator Vern White, Liberal Senator Frances Lankin and NDP MP Murray Rankin, have any background in intelligence.  Even those three were more consumers than producers.  Those who have been on the receiving end of assessed product are not usually aware of the nuts and bolts of the business.  Only those who worked with raw intercept, either human source or signals intelligence, truly understand how the sausage is made (to use a metaphor).  It would thus be a good idea to not limit the presence of former intelligence professionals to the executive cadre but to carefully consider analysts and collectors as well (the executive may once have been working at the coalface but are likely too far removed both in time and space to be good teachers for the uninitiated).  NSICOP cannot work well if its members do not have a solid grasp of the intelligence industry and this can only come from (former) insiders.

Secondly, having veteran spies at the ready will mean that NSICOP will know what questions to ask of the agencies under its purview.  Those with decades of direct experience are best placed to examine the information provided to the committee, understand what is being said and know what avenues to pursue for clarification or supplementary explanation.  Better questions imply better bang for the buck for Canadians.

The notion that those who worked for CSIS, CSE or the RCMP are not welcome in oversight due to their closeness to their former employers is an insult.  Intelligence professionals are just that – professionals.  They took their jobs seriously and strove to carry out the mandates of their employers to the best of their abilities.  This professionalism would extend to their duties with NSICOP.  As formers they also benefit from not having current loyalties to those agencies and can help ask the tough questions.

We have an opportunity to do national security oversight and review right in Canada.  Let’s opt for the intelligent approach.

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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