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Jack Knox: Murray Rankin’s ‘daunting’ role as new spy watchdog

You can just about hear Murray Rankin gulp over the phone from Ottawa. “Let’s be honest, it’s daunting,” the Victoria MP says of his new challenge. “But it’s so important.
NDP MP Murray Rankin stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

You can just about hear Murray Rankin gulp over the phone from Ottawa.

“Let’s be honest, it’s daunting,” the Victoria MP says of his new challenge. “But it’s so important.”

“It” is Rankin’s appointment by Justin Trudeau to head an independent watchdog for Canada’s security and intelligence agencies, one intended to ensure their activities are legal, reasonable and necessary.

The job, announced Wednesday, comes with a ton of responsibility and with access to secrets that Rankin will never be allowed to divulge. So much for easing into post-political life.

The new National Security and Intelligence Review Agency will, for the first time, bring oversight of all of Canada’s cloak-and-dagger efforts under one umbrella.

That means the new agency will absorb the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which looks at the activities of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. It will also watch over the lesser-known Communications Security Establishment and the intelligence- and security-related activities of all other federal bodies — the RCMP, the Defence Department and the Canada Border Services Agency, to name a few.

“We have oversight over the whole thing,” Rankin says.

The former UVic law professor announced in January that he would not seek re-election to the House of Commons seat he first won in 2012. That the prime minister should, after consulting with other party leaders, appoint a New Democrat to chair the new agency offers reason to have faith that it will be independent, Rankin says.

Rankin says the call from Trudeau came as “a complete surprise, and a pleasant one.” (The two were to meet when the prime minister was in Victoria last week, but couldn’t make their schedules mesh.)

Rankin’s background did offer hints that he might be considered for the job, though. As a grad student at Harvard Law School he focused on national security and freedom of information. He later served as a lawyer for the Security Intelligence Review Committee and as a special advocate under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act — a lawyer with security clearance, appointed by the court to ensure people held or facing deportation for security reasons were treated fairly.

Since 2017 he has served on the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, a group of MPs and senators cleared to study top-secret information. He knows a lot of stuff he can’t talk about. “Sometimes you get quite anxious about what you learn,” he says.

Both the creation of the new agency and Rankin’s appointment won approval Wednesday from an insider we’ll just refer to as a retired senior public servant with experience in intelligence: “I don’t know of any other sitting MP who could match him for experience in the security and intelligence world.”

That world includes the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which is tasked with detecting and stopping espionage directed against Canada, and Communications Security Establishment, which intercepts foreign communications for intelligence purposes. It’s the Communications Security Establishment’s job to listen for terrorists plotting to blow us up, say, or to watch out for Russians using the internet to interfere in our elections — but that doesn’t mean it may eavesdrop on you and your buddy for no good reason.

“We have rights and freedoms that we have to safeguard,” says Rankin, whose role will be to ensure that the extraordinary, intrusive powers with which such agencies are entrusted in the name of keeping Canadians safe are wielded in accordance with the rule of law.

At the same time, he is supposed to ensure those agencies do their job. “If there’s a threat, are the agencies adequately responding to that threat?”

Rankin’s new four-year post is a non-partisan role, meaning he won’t be able to campaign or fundraise for the NDP prior to October’s election. “I have to have a bright red line between by former life as a politician and this new responsibility.”

He will resign as MP and take on the new job Sept. 1 (which will probably be just a couple of weeks before Parliament is dissolved for the election anyway).

Also named to the new agency Wednesday were Craig Forcese — a University of Ottawa law professor and expert in national security — and the four current Security Intelligence Review Committee members.