SIRC: Good People Can’t Save a Bad Institution

It would be nice to believe that two solid appointments by the Prime Minister would alleviate the ills that bedevil the Security and Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), the much-maligned body charged with looking into complaints against the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). If that were the case, the announcement on May 1 of the appointments of Pierre Blais and Marie-Lucie Morin as Chair and Member respectively of the SIRC would be earth-shaking news. The two appointments may not be the new faces that some were hoping to see, but they reverse a raft of questionable choices of the Harper government over the years—most notably the Prime Minister’s inexplicable decision in 2008 to put Arthur Porter into the SIRC and later elevate him to the post of Chairman.

The SIRC has a raft of serious problems, and having a group of respected individuals at its head hardly addresses the real issues that compromise its work.

Mr. Blais’ prior work on the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal will be instrumental in the new position. The selection of Marie-Lucie Morin, a former National Security Adviser and career foreign service officer, is especially noteworthy, since it puts into the SIRC someone who has seen the inner workings of government and knows how interdepartmental cooperation works (and doesn’t work). When combined with the other sitting members of the SIRC (including Yves Fortier, one of Canada’s most distinguished jurists), these appointments add a degree of credibility to the SIRC which it hasn’t seen since well before its Arthur Porter days.

Unfortunately, good people can’t save a bad institution. The SIRC has a raft of serious problems, and having a group of respected individuals at its head hardly addresses the real issues that compromise its work. In the past few years, critics have focused on the SIRC’s slender budget and lack of resources, especially after inheriting ‘inspector general’ functions which the Harper government dropped from CSIS in 2012. As if to address that deficiency, the most recent budget announced a small dollop of money for the SIRC. The problem, however, is only partly about resources. The more serious issues are about mandate and working methods.

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Almost a decade ago, the O’Connor Commission looking into the Maher Arar case recommended a sweeping change in the accountability structures of the Canadian security and intelligence community. The Harper government has done nothing since that time, despite widespread public criticism of the lack of accountability of Canada’s institutions almost across the board. At a time when CSIS, DND, CSEC, the RCMP and other agencies cooperate closely, there has to be a seamless mesh of review and oversight organizations that can work together, speak to each other, share information and organize joint review projects. As it stands now, SIRC is only one institution, covering just one of Canada’s security agencies, working in a silo. The members of the SIRC can’t change a situation long overdue for reform.

SIRC also has to have a sensible, credible reporting authority to the government, other agencies, Parliament and most of all the Canadian public. This is the central point of accountability, and it’s essential in the case of CSIS because of the necessarily intrusive nature of the intelligence community’s work. If we accept that CSIS needs to work in the shadows, we also need to ensure that it works within a framework of laws, with safeguards that prevent secrecy from hiding serious breaches of its mandate and legal authority. At the present time, we have none of this. Who, besides the government, gets full, unredacted SIRC reports? Who acts on the observations which lie in classified versions of SIRC work?

A decade ago, in the case of Mohammed Jabarah, a Canadian citizen now serving a life sentence in an American super-max prison, the SIRC levelled serious accusations against CSIS’s handling of his case. It alleged violations of Canadian law and Jabarah’s Charter rights. Was there any subsequent action? Were there any policy reviews? Was the RCMP called in? Governments need closure on these cases—not simply callous denials because few people sympathize with the victims.

Then there’s the issue of democratic accountability. Almost every serious country has a parliamentary committee at the top of the security and intelligence food chain…except Canada. Canadian parliamentarians are not cleared to examine classified CSIS reports, and the Harper government has refused even the idea of a parliamentary committee with limited authorities to look at policies and budgets. Of necessity, the SIRC must report to the government, especially the responsible minister. But it only makes sense that it reports as well to Parliament, especially now, given its new “inspector general” role. Over time, parliamentary consideration of sensitive security and intelligence issues might help achieve what Canada badly lacks: a greater national consensus on how our security institutions should be shaped and what powers they need in order to function effectively. This is in the interests of CSIS, the RCMP and others, as well as in the public interest.

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The new members should help the committee improve its work. Some of its past reports (at least the public portions) are simply not very good. The SIRC report on CSIS actions on the detainee issue in Afghanistan is silly because of its narrow scope. The report on the case of Abousoufian Abdelrazik (a Canadian stranded in Sudan allegedly because of CSIS complicity with the CIA) makes no sense because it fails to draw logical conclusions, even if the evidence is inconclusive. One wonders if this reflects poor staff support, incomplete investigative efforts, or possibly a failure to talk to others who might shed more light on issues. Possibly some of these examples were simply the conclusions of a less than diligent SIRC member. SIRC should also be more pro-active on public disclosure rather than await ‘access to information’ requests or discovery processes in court cases.

There are fewer excuses for failure now that we have an excellent lineup in the SIRC. Their challenge is to make a bad institution march along until a future government decides that all of our public institutions need an appropriate accountability framework.

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