The Liberal government has moved to create a parliamentary oversight committee to scrutinize operations of more than a dozen agencies. Bill C-22, tabled yesterday, would authorize the committee of seven MPs and two senators to access national security information and review these agencies’ operations, along with the other various oversight agencies that now monitor specific security and intelligences services.
The goal, said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, is to ensure security and intelligence organizations “are effective while protecting Canadians values, rights and freedoms.” This move fulfils a major Liberal election promise to increase parliamentary scrutiny of national security operations to offset the expansive and controversial counterterrorism powers under the Anti-terrorism Act of 2015.
Canada is the only one of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network to lack such a parliamentary review committee. The other members are Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
The committee would have the power to delve into any national security matter and access classified government information. “They are going to have the ability to look at any issue, any activity, any operation, any document in the government of Canada that relates to security and intelligence matters,” Goodale told reporters after the bill’s unveiling.
However, the Bill also offers government a handful of disclosure escape clauses. For example, the state has the power to deny the committee information or halt a review of an operation “injurious to national security,” a catch-all clause that past governments have used to “slam the door on politically sensitive or otherwise damaging inquiries.” These decisions are also final according to the Bill.
The committee would also make an annual report of findings and recommendations to the Prime Minister, with a “redacted version” tabled in Parliament.
Overall, the legislation is “a very good bill” that would create a long overdue role for parliamentarians, said Wesley Wark, an intelligence historian who teaches at the University of Ottawa. Craig Forcese, law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in national security, said that, on paper at least, the proposed committee is a stronger body than the equivalents in Australia and Britain.
However, Forcese has concerns about the government’s ability to veto the committee’s plans, limit its ability to see secret materials and redact its reports. Similarly, Conservative MP and public safety critic Erin O’Toole said that this bill makes it “very easy for a lot of ministries and agencies to avoid sharing information with this committee.”
This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the view of the CCLA or PBSC.