How does Canada’s intelligence oversight compare to other countries?
WATCH: While there are questions about how effective the new laws will be, some wonder whether we’re sacrificing personal liberty for national security. Vassy Kapelos reports.
Critics of Canada’s spy agencies are concerned the Conservatives’ newly-proposed anti-terror legislation will put the privacy of Canadians at further risk.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, announcing the new laws at an event in Richmond Hill, Ont. on Friday, said the measures are necessary “to target those actions that threaten our freedom, our democracy and our traditions of tolerance.”
“[T]his plan appears to further encourage reckless sharing of our sensitive private information rather than providing a clear path for effective targeted action,” OpenMedia.ca communications manager David Christopher said in a statement released shortly after the Conservative government announced their intended augmentations to Canada’s anti-terror laws.
The group is concerned expanding the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Agency (CSIS) to stop suspected extremist activities — including preventing alleged terror supporters from travelling abroad, blocking bank transactions and covertly interfering with websites deemed as promoting radicalism — could “place Canadians’ private lives under the microscope of secretive and unaccountable government agencies like CSIS and CSE [Communications Security Establishment Canada].”
Oversight of Canadian surveillance agencies exists, but it’s limited. The government, since the attacks in Ottawa and St. Jean-sur-Richelieu last October, has sought to widen intelligence gathering powers without increasing the abilities of the watchdogs who monitor the agencies.
Communications Security Establishment Commissioner Jean-Pierre Plouffe, a retired judge, and 10 staff members monitor CSE’s eavesdropping activities. CSE, by comparison, has more than 2,100 staff.
As for CSIS, it once had oversight that was seen as “innovative” by other nations, said former CSIS agent Michel Juneau-Katsuya. But over the years, oversight has been whittled away.
When CSIS was established in 1984, it had the independent oversight of the Office of the Inspector General, which the Harper government shut down in 2012, and the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC).
But, Canada isn’t the only country among its allies whose governments face criticism calls for more transparency and more eyes on intelligence operations.
Intelligence agencies in the United Kingdom — MI5, MI6 and GCHQ (the British equivalent of CSE) — are held accountable by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). ISC chair Sir Malcolm Rifkin has just nine MPs and staff helping him to keep tabs on the three agencies and the thousands of employees who work for them.
British Members of Parliament in May 2014 called for reforms, saying the ISC should be made up of elected MPs rather than appointees, the Guardian reported. It’s a similar situation with SIRC, Juneau-Katsuya explained.
“SIRC, which was originally composed of five representatives of the elected parties, became five appointees selected by the prime minister,” Juneau-Katsuya said. He said those appointees are “friendly” with the party in power.
“We much more have a lapdog rather than a watchdog.”
Cutting the position of the Inspector General was a much bigger blow to accountability, Juneau-Katsuya said. “By abolishing that, the minister now is capable of saying, “Oh, I didn’t know that. Nobody told me.'”
While Canadian and British watchdogs tend to be composed of unelected appointees, the U.S. — widely criticized for spying on its citizens, as well as foreign citizens and the leaders of other governments — at least has oversight conducted by a bipartisan committee of senators.
The 2015-2016 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is made up of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, who held the balance of power for the previous four sessions of Congress (between 2007 and 2014) when they controlled the Senate.
The committee is led by Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican, and Vice Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat.
Despite the appearance of a committee that looks somewhat representative of the elected government, not every U.S. intelligence agencies activities are held to account.
“People have to testify in front of the Senate committee,” Juneau-Katsuya said. “But we do have, within the Senate Committee, sub-committees that are capable to go further and there’s a lot of political influence and tug-of-war.
“And In some places they simply don’t have accountability and they don’t have to report anything.”
With files from The Canadian Press
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