Bill to create spy oversight committee introduced in Commons
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, June 16, 2016 10:44AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, June 17, 2016 7:29AM EDT
OTTAWA -- The Liberal government is moving to create a multi-party committee of parliamentarians -- bound forever to secrecy -- to serve as another set of eyes on federal intelligence activities.
Legislation tabled Thursday would authorize the security-cleared committee of seven MPs and two senators to scrutinize the intelligence work of more than a dozen agencies. A maximum of four MPs from the governing party could be members.
The goal is to ensure security and intelligence organizations are effective while protecting Canadian values, rights and freedoms, said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who called it the most important Liberal promise on national security.
All of Canada's major allies -- including the United States, Britain and France -- have such committees.
"We have studied what those other countries do," Goodale told a news conference, adding Canada has learned from the examples -- both good and bad.
The Canadian committee would have a high degree of independence, power to delve into any national security matter and access to classified government information. However, ministers could withhold information from the members if handing it over would harm national security.
In addition, a minister would have authority to halt a review of an ongoing operation if the scrutiny would be damaging.
Members would swear an oath of secrecy and would not be able to claim parliamentary immunity if they divulged classified information. In addition, members would join the class of officials permanently bound to secrecy about certain operational information.
The committee's findings and recommendations would be tabled in Parliament, though the government would review the reports beforehand to ensure they don't contain classified information.
The Liberal government of Paul Martin proposed the same sort of committee, but the initiative never came to fruition. The Harper Conservative government resisted repeated calls to give politicians a fuller role in intelligence oversight, saying the job should rest with non-partisan officials.
The new committee would complement the various watchdogs that now monitor specific spy services.
On paper at least, the proposed committee is a stronger body than the equivalents in Australia and Britain, said Craig Forcese, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in national security.
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.
Overall, the legislation is "a very good bill" that would create a long overdue role for parliamentarians, said Wesley Wark, an intelligence historian who also teaches at the University of Ottawa.
However, Wark added, the real test will be finding the right members, setting up a secretariat to support the committee, actually doing good work, earning the trust of the security and intelligence community and "finding ways to really inform the Canadian public about sensitive intelligence and security issues."