Thoughts on the Future of Intelligence Accountability in Canada

The decision of the Harper government to close the Office of the Inspector General of CSIS and end its 28-year history opens a new and challenging chapter for the process of keeping watch over the Canadian security and intelligence community. It’s hard to be optimistic that this change will be for the better.

The Government has indicated that the functions of the Inspector General’s office will be transferred to the Security and Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC). The IG’s office was internal to the Department of Public Safety and meant to serve as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Minister. SIRC is differently constituted under the CSIS Act: it is an external review body with a mandate to report to Parliament. It is not the Minister’s office.

“In Canada, our patchwork review system isn’t strong enough to fully protect against potential abuse.”

The SIRC mandate will have to adapt, somehow, to its new reporting requirements. No new resources are promised for SIRC, which is already a small body. Perhaps most importantly, the focus of SIRC reporting will have to change if it is to accomplish its new hybrid task of keeping both the Minister and Parliament alert to problems with regard to the activity of CSIS.

Under the leadership of Eva Plunkett, who served as IG from December 2003 to her retirement in December 2011, the Inspector-General’s office became increasingly alarmist in its reporting to the Minister about error rates in CSIS reporting, policy gaps, and information management issues. All of these topics bear directly on an intelligence service’s professionalism, as well as on its ability to operate while respecting human rights.

The final certificate to the Minister (prepared by the IG’s office for the year 2011) is noteworthy for its bluntness:

The re-occurring and high rate of non-compliance with policy, and the ever-increasing rate of errors in reporting identified in what is a relatively small review sample of CSIS activities is a concern to me and should be a serious concern of the Service. Errors in intelligence reporting, as I have repeatedly stated over my tenure, are a serious matter and have the potential for far-reaching consequences[.]

The immediate challenge for SIRC in its putative take-over of the functions of the IG’s office is to continue the fight to alert the Minister of error rates and policy problems, and to continue to press for resolution. For SIRC to take on this challenge means it will have to become more aggressive in its approach to reviewing the activities of CSIS; for the problems that the IG’s office saw were never problems that SIRC has highlighted in the past. It also means that SIRC must devote more attention to questions of how well CSIS performs its functions, in addition to its traditional concern with lawful behaviour. If accomplished, this will amount to a substantial change in the SIRC approach. It will be a tall order for SIRC, at least at the outset.  The management of SIRC will be in new and untried hands.  SIRC has a brand-new chairman (Chuck Strahl) and will have to find a replacement for its long-serving executive director, Susan Pollak, who retires this summer.

Whatever happens, SIRC’s remit will continue to be restricted to reviewing the activities of CSIS. CSIS, of course, is only one component of the Canadian intelligence system. Other components are served by separate review functions: the RCMP by the Public Complaints Commissioner, and the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) by its own Commissioner. Substantial portions of the community operate outside the watch of any public review body, including the Canada Border Services Agency, other components of the Department of Public Safety, the Privy Council office, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Transport Canada (responsible for our no-fly list) and Department of National Defence.

Six years after Justice O’Connor’s report on the Maher Arar affair, no government action has been taken to meet his recommendations for a more expansive and unified review of the Canadian intelligence community. Our system of external review remains a patchwork with many gaps, and remains focused on issues of propriety rather than efficacy. Parliament is also a weak link: it has taken no action to establish a dedicated committee focused on government-wide security and intelligence issues, and pays insufficient attention to such matters.

Watching over intelligence and security agencies is a challenging but necessary function in any democracy—not just to protect against abuse, but also to ensure value for public money. In Canada, our patchwork review system isn’t strong enough to fully protect against potential abuse. It has yet to make the contribution it might to helping ensure that the intelligence and security services are doing their job adequately. The Inspector General’s function and hard-hitting reports will be missed.

One can only hope that the expertise gained by the staff over many years, and its records, will not be scattered to the winds. But in a time of severe budget cuts to the federal civil service and indifference to systematic records, especially of the pesky variety, this hope is probably forlorn.

 For other CIPS material on this topic, see Dan Livermore’s “Eliminating Accountability and Masking the Intent at CSIS”; Craig Forcese’s “Fewer Eyes on the Spies: Going Backwards on Accountability”; and the CIPS archive of the CSIS Inspector General Certificate Reports.

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