Canada’s spy agencies hid information from Parliament’s watchdogs – National
Canada‘s intelligence agencies withheld the information from parliamentary scrutiny, leading a key oversight committee to warn that its work could be “compromised” if the situation persists.
The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), a joint House of Commons and Senate body that reviews the country’s intelligence apparatus, has warned that “some organizations” have delayed or rejected requests for information from the committee.
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The committee’s right to access information is enshrined in law, but intelligence agencies “delayed providing information or failed to provide relevant requested documents” for their reviews.
“If this continues, the committee’s ability to fulfill its statutory mandate will be compromised,” the committee warned in recently released documents.
The statement has raised concern among national security experts — especially as the relatively new committee has had its share of challenges since its inception by the Liberals’ 2017 national security reforms.
Canada lagged among its close security partners in parliamentary – public – oversight of the country’s growing national security and intelligence apparatus. NSICOP changed that by giving parliamentarians with security clearances access to intelligence and decision-makers within the intelligence community.
This is not the first time that NSICOP has expressed concern about access to the information needed to conduct its reviews. This has been an ongoing issue since 2018 and publicly reported again in the committee’s 2019 and 2020 reports.
“(This) suggests that this is an ongoing issue, or at least an ongoing risk that the committee is paying attention to and trying to report publicly as something that could jeopardize its mandate,” Christopher said. Parsons, researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.
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Although the committee has produced reports critical of intelligence community operations, Parsons suggested that a greater risk is that the committee will receive incomplete or selective information about intelligence operations.
This could cause the committee to miss key operational details or paint the intelligence community in a better light than reality.
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“If they do not have access to relevant documents, the reports they publish … may in fact not contain the critical information that would allow NSICOP to more critically assess the operations” of federal intelligence agencies, a said Parsons.
“So when and if they don’t have access to the documents, there’s a concern that it could somehow skew the reports that come out, so that while they’re helpful, they don’t tell the whole story. And they may tell a story that is more in the interest or favor of the agencies under review than may be appropriate.
In a statement, NSICOP said it had “productive” conversations with both offices of the national security and intelligence adviser and with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
These conversations “helped address important and pressing challenges the committee faced in accessing information,” according to Lisa-Marie Inman, executive director of the NSICOP Secretariat.
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Inman added that, in the opinion of NSICOP Chairman David McGuinty, “the committee has a good relationship with the security and intelligence community.”
“(The relationship) is collegial, productive and mutually dedicated to building accountability and efficiency,” Inman wrote in a statement to Global News.
“Establishing and maintaining a relationship of trust is an ongoing effort, particularly because a proper relationship between a review body and those reviewed will and should always have a necessary tension, and the past four years operating procedures have established the necessary relationships and structures to ensure that the committee is able to rigorously carry out its mandate.
Established in 2017, NSICOP has struggled to establish itself as a central tool for transparency and accountability in the generally dark world of intelligence and national security.
In 2018, one of its members – former Tory cabinet minister Tony Clement – was forced to resign from the committee after ending up in a sexting and extortion scandal. National security watchers at the time expressed concern that intelligence agencies would withhold information after it was revealed that a member of the committee could potentially be compromised.
The Conservative Party also decided to boycott the committee after the Liberal government withheld information about the firing of two Chinese scientists from a sensitive infectious disease lab in Winnipeg.
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After Erin O’Toole was ousted as leader, the Conservatives relented and proposed new members for the committee.
NSICOP examines more than the organizations traditionally considered spy agencies – the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). It also has a mandate to “follow the thread” between various departments that have national security roles, such as the Department of National Defence, the Privy Council Office and Global Affairs Canada.
According to the law, the committee “has the right to have access to any information that is under the control of a department and that is related to the fulfillment of the committee’s mandate”. This includes information protected by solicitor-client privilege.
The committee submits its reports to the prime minister, and officials clean the reports of information that could compromise national security before releasing a censored version.
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