Fewer Eyes on the Spies: Going Backwards on Accountability

By now it has been widely reported that the Tory government will be abolishing the Office of the Inspector General of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. This astonishing development appeared suddenly from the ether, buried in the government’s now notorious omnibus budget implementation bill. The move has been justified (ex post facto) as a cost cutting measure, without degradation of review over CSIS because the inspector general’s functions will now be performed by the Security Intelligence Review Committee. There is no indication, however, that SIRC’s own capacity, resources or expertise will be supplemented to fulfill these new tasks.

The inspector general of CSIS is appointed by the governor-in-council and is responsible to the deputy minister of public safety. Described as the minister’s “eyes and ears” in the Service [Arar inquiry, Policy Report at 280], the inspector general monitors compliance by the Service with its operational policies and examines its operational activities [CSIS Act, s. 30]. To this end, the inspector general is given full access to the Service’s information, except Cabinet confidences [CSIS Act, s. 31]. (Cabinet confidences are, in essence, the papers supporting or describing Cabinet deliberations.)

“It is very difficult to see why anyone thought that abolishing the IG was a good idea.”

The inspector general certifies whether the reports provided by the director are adequate and whether they reveal any action of the Service that the inspector general views as an unauthorized, unreasonable or unnecessary exercise of its powers [CSIS Act, s. 33].

The inspector general has been an active watchdog. Her certificate reports, released annually pursuant to access to information reports, have regularly pinpointed shortcomings in CSIS operational policies and practices. (Out of a concern that these reports may disappear from the Public Safety website once the office is abolished, CIPS has archived the reports as a research and teaching resource.)

Wesley Wark and Colin Kenny have identified a number of concerns stemming from the abolition of the IG and the transfer of functions to SIRC. I share many of those. In particular:

  • I am concerned that SIRC members lack both the expertise and now, in the absence of a chair, the leadership required to be effective reviewers of CSIS activities.
  • I am concerned that SIRC is a body currently staffed by appointees with no legal training and no national security background and with sometimes readily apparent affiliations with the governing party.  I fear that hard questions may not be asked by such a body, either because of self-censorship or simple lack of expertise. (To be fair, civil servants may themselves self-censure.  So at the very least, there should be redundancy in review to counter any timidity a political appointee or a career civil servant might have in facing hard truths.)
  • I am concerned that SIRC itself is already increasingly underfunded relative to the enormous growth in CSIS funding since 9/11.

More generally, the erosion of accountability in the security intelligence sector is an especially troubling development for a government that has just endorsed a policy of torture and intelligence that, if employed as intended, will place CSIS in violation of Canada’s international obligations and potentially Canada’s own Criminal Code.

The putative $1 million saved annually by abolishing the IG’s office would be easily swept away by the cost of contending with a meltdown in CSIS practices. The Arar Commission cost over $20 million, not including the $10 million settlement with Mr. Arar. Assuming similar price tags for the Iacobucci and Major inquiries, it is glaringly obvious after the fact cures are incredibly expensive. (And keep in mind that litigation is currently underway by the people wronged by the government practices at issue in the Iacobucci inquiry that, if successful, will cost the Canadian government and its taxpayers scores of millions of dollars). And these were events that arose with an IG and a SIRC. Take away the IG, and it stands to reason that risks of error are compounded. Even if there is only a small chance that the IG’s reports would preempt the sorts of wrongs that fueled these inquiries, that office is a bargain.

It is very difficult to see why anyone thought that abolishing the IG was a good idea.

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