Copeland: Are the Liberal party’s calls for parliamentary oversight of Canada’s intelligence services warranted?

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February 6, 2014

Canada’s intelligence services, although apparently not as out-of-control as their much larger U.S. and U.K. counterparts, would almost certainly benefit from greater parliamentary oversight and accountability.

According to ministerial briefing documents prepared for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and obtained by Embassy magazine under the Access to Information Act, serious gaps exist in the review structure that applies to national security agencies. In particular, “no standing body exists that can conduct integrated reviews of national security activities that cut across departments and agencies” and “some departments or agencies beyond the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Communications Security Establishment Canada]and the RCMP have received additional national security responsibilities in recent years, but are not subject to corresponding increased levels of independent review.”

In a report submitted to Parliament on January 28, interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier made many of the same observations, and recommended:

  • bolstering the powers of the federal bodies reviewing national security operations

  • reforming existing privacy legislation to curb over-collection of private information and controlling its disclosure

  • providing a public status update on “consideration, rejection or implementation” of the Major and O’Connor reports

  • production of a white paper clarifying the mandates of Canada’s intelligence agencies and how they co-operate with global partners, as well as “lessons learned” from the O’Connor, Iacobucci and Major reports.

It is not clear what impact – if any – acceptance of these recommendations would have on existing intelligence-sharing agreements with Canada’s partners in the “Five Eyes” group (U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, N.Z.) or beyond. But given the dearth of convincing evidence to the effect that intrusive cyber-surveillance has significantly improved either public safety or national security, heightened scrutiny and greater transparency appear to be in order.

In the current political environment, civil liberties and constitutional rights require constant vigilance and active defence.

We are all much in Edward Snowden’s debt.