Prime Minister Stephen Harper loves to claim the review body for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service provides “robust” oversight. If by “robust,” he means weak, ineffective and half-baked, then I agree with him.
If, however, he means the word as it is conventionally understood, Harper couldn’t be further from the mark.
The responsibility for keeping an eye on Canada’s national security officials rests with the Security Intelligence Review Committee. But committee members themselves admit they are struggling to carry out their duties.
Every year, SIRC releases a departmental performance report that outlines its accomplishments and challenges. Its latest report paints a grim picture. It says that there are “many inherent risks associated with [SIRC’s] small size.”
These risks are unsurprising given that the committee’s annual budget of $2.8 million is a mere half a per cent of CSIS’s $513 million in funding. SIRC only has 17 staff and five members to monitor the activities of CSIS —an organization that has arrangements with 265 foreign agencies in 144 countries, employs about 2,500 personnel, and has 14 district and regional offices across Canada.
To make matters worse, committee appointments are part-time, and they met on only nine occasions last year.
When committee seats become vacant, as occurs frequently, the prime minister waits months to appoint new members. According to SIRC’s departmental performance report, this near-constant turnover has had a “direct impact on the organization’s ability to operate effectively” and represents a “risk to the stability of leadership.”
The challenges faced by SIRC help explain the poor quality of its reports, which are generally vague and lack substance.
This situation cannot continue.
Turning SIRC into an effective watchdog of Canada’s spy agency requires the following changes:
• Expanding the committee’s membership to nine from five.
• Boosting SIRC’s staff from 17 to at least 30.
• Making committee membership a full-time appointment on a staggered, one-time-renewable five-year term.
• Appointing a deputy chair and deputy executive director who can quickly take over the lead role in the case of vacancy.
• Increasing SIRC’s annual budget from $2.8 million to at least $10 million, or about two per cent of CSIS’s budget.
SIRC must also revamp the way it approaches its reviews. Currently, the organization only takes snapshots of what the agency is up to in a small number of areas at a specific moment.
The committee doesn’t follow up with CSIS on the outcome of these reviews, making this approach almost completely devoid of context.
A new and improved SIRC is only part of the equation. The re-establishment of the Office of the Inspector General of CSIS is also necessary. The PM shut down the organization in 2012, claiming it was redundant.
But he ignored the fact that, unlike members of SIRC, inspectors general were seasoned national-security officials who had the experience to sniff out malfeasance and provide as close to real-time oversight of CSIS as is possible in a Westminster system.
Another area in need of improvement is the application process for national-security warrants. Most of the time, federal lawyers go before a judge to seek approval for a warrant with no opposing lawyer present to scrutinize their case.
This helps to explain why the vast majority of the 200 to 300 warrants the government seeks each year are approved.
Lawyers providing a challenge function against the government’s argument, referred to as special advocates, should be mandatory for each application. This will help to restore balance to the process and ensure judges hear both sides of the argument.
A closer look at our intelligence oversight apparatus reveals much to be desired; the CSIS inspector general is no more, the warrant application system is out of balance and the one remaining agency reviewing CSIS is an underfunded, understaffed, five-person, part-time civilian committee that met a total of nine times last year.
If we are to have a serious debate about the pending terrorism legislation before Parliament, we must start by admitting the obvious: Intelligence oversight in Canada is a far cry from “robust.”
Colin Kenny is former chairman of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.