Watching the Watchers: The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians in Action

Watching the Watchers: The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians in Action

The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) has had a brief and tumultuous life. It was under the gun from the start; once its authorizing legislation was passed in the summer of 2017 it had to get up and running quickly for 2018; then it faced a shortened work horizon in 2019, having to rush to finish its reporting before the election writ was dropped in September. Then it had to come back to life after the election pause with new members. Now it faces a profound interruption imposed by the arrival of a pandemic. Not a lucky start for Canada’s first experiment in real Parliamentary scrutiny of the activities of the federal security and intelligence system.

NSICOP was rooted in a Liberal party election campaign pledge to enhance review as a way to balance new powers being accorded to our security and intelligence agencies. But the idea of Parliamentary scrutiny always raised a whole string of doubts. Could this experimental Committee be truly non-partisan; could MPs and Senators without much experience understand the complexities of the security and intelligence world; could the Committee make good choices of issues to review; could it do good reporting; could it earn the trust of the agencies it would hold up to review, many of them being new themselves to outside scrutiny; could it keep secrets?

We can now hold the Committee up to two years of scrutiny itself. Many of the doubts have been laid to rest, importantly around non-partisan behaviour, issue selection, and keeping secrets. The Committee still has to confront and prove a value-proposition, namely that its review powers can contribute to a better performing security and intelligence system, and that it’s public reporting can enhance the understanding of all Canadians about the importance and nature of national security work.

Read Wesley Wark’s full working paper online here

This blog post and an associated, longer evaluation hosted on the Centre for International Policy Studies website, are designed to put a marker down on some of the accomplishments and challenges revealed in the second round of annual reporting by the Committee.

The most broad-scoped studies conducted by the Committee are called “framework” reviews. For 2019, the Committee wrote two framework reviews, one on the social attributes of the Canadian security and intelligence community, through a study of diversity and inclusion; the other a look at the hot topic of foreign interference targeting Canada’s democratic system.

The second kind of study involves “activity reviews,” which are more focused examinations of the operations of a particular federal department or agency with a national security mandate. For 2019 the Committee levelled its glaze on the Canada Border Services Agency, an iceberg organization in terms of public knowledge, but also reengages with defence intelligence issues raised in its 2018 reporting.

The longer evaluation posted on the CIPS website goes into detail on each of these four studies conducted in 2019 and is divided into two parts, one involving the framework reviews, the other the activity studies. Readers are welcome to follow their interests and dive into particular parts of the longer commentary.

This blog will briefly summarise some of my views on the NSICOP reports.

Learn about Prof Wark

The Diversity and Inclusion study is a much needed and brilliant piece of work, with excellent research bones. It doesn’t over-promise but establishes itself as a preliminary foundation for a deeper look in 3-5 years time. Its conclusions are not surprising, namely that diversity and inclusion goals in the workplace of the security and intelligence system are not being fully met and are under-ambitious. The Committee wants to see better leadership to achieve stated goals and a culture shift on the part of security and intelligence agencies. Canada is changing as a society, and the security system has to catch up with these changes.

The second framework review looked at the hot button issue of foreign interference. The Committee decided to explore one particular aspect of the problem: covert meddling by foreign states in civil society groups in Canada, especially diaspora communities. Its tone is not alarmist, but it does want to draw attention to the threat, in the belief that it is little understood in Canada. NSICIOP is quite critical of the government response to foreign interference. It wants a strategy and stronger government leadership to meet the threat. It will be interesting to see how the government responds when it can turn its attention to this issue.

Recommended: Why it’s Important to Acknowledge What We Don’t Know in a Crisis

The activity review NSICOP conducted of the Canada Border Services Agency offers a mostly reassuring message. The Committee zeroed in on CBSA operations most likely to impact on Canadians rights and privacy and found itself satisfied that CBSA was properly addressing risks and mitigation. What is lacking is a full examination of how well CBSA uses the intelligence at its disposal in decision-making to fulfill its border security mandate? Part of the problem is that CBSA itself currently lacks an ability to fully answer the question.

Finally, there is a Special Report on the use by defence intelligence of Canadians’ communications. Here the Committee finds no smoking gun but is worried about the inadequacy of doctrine and the lack of a firm constitutional foundation for the expanded operations of the Canadian military, particularly in an age when overseas coalition operations and technological capabilities could easily bring our armed forces into situations where it is acquiring information on Canadians and even finding itself confronting Canadians who are enemy combatants (foreign fighters). Time for a new foundation, says the Committee, and on this one, the Government has signalled its agreement.

Altogether the 2019 reports are further proof of the growing maturity of the Committee, offer examples of the value it can bring and cast doubters into corners. What lies ahead for the Committee is further work on its value proposition and more finely tuned studies that ask and answer big questions about just how well the security and intelligence community is performing.

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