Canada’s spy agencies have held back information from Parliament’s watchdogs

David McGuinty, chair of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parlmentarians, holds a new conference to release committee's annual report, in Ottawa on March 12, 2020. Fred Chartrand / The Canadian Press

Canada’s intelligence agencies have held back information from parliamentary oversight, leading a key watchdog committee to warn its work could be “compromised” if the situation continues.

The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), a joint House of Commons and Senate body that reviews the country’s intelligence apparatus, warned that “some organizations” have delayed or denied the committee’s requests for information.

The committee’s right to access information is enshrined in law, but intelligence agencies “have delayed the provision of information or did not provide requested material relevant” to their reviews.

“Should this continue, the ability of the committee to fulfill its statutory mandate will be compromised,” the committee warned in recently published documents.

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The statement has drawn concern from national security experts – especially given the relatively new committee has had its share of challenges since being established by the Liberals’ 2017 national security reforms.

Canada was a laggard among close security partners in providing parliamentary – public – oversight into the country’s growing national security and intelligence apparatus. NSICOP changed that, giving security-cleared parliamentarians access to intelligence and decision-makers within the intelligence community.

It’s not the first time NSICOP has raised concerns about getting access to the information required to conduct its reviews. It’s been an ongoing issue since 2018, and publicly flagged again in the committee’s 2019 and 2020 reports.

“(It) suggests that this is an ongoing problem, or at least an ongoing risk that the committee is attentive to and is trying to flag publicly as something that could endanger their mandate,” said Christopher Parsons, a researcher with Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

While the committee has produced some critical reporting on the operations of the intelligence community, Parsons suggested a larger risk is the committee being given incomplete or selective information about intelligence operations.

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That could lead to the committee either missing key details about operations or painting the intelligence community in a better light than the reality.

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“If they’re not getting access to relevant documents, the reports they’re putting out … may actually not have the critical information that would allow NSICOP to assess more critically the operations” of federal intelligence agencies, Parsons said.

“So when and if they’re not getting access to documents there’s a concern that the result is it sort of jukes the reports that are coming out, such that while they are helpful, they may not tell the full story. And they may tell a story that’s more in the interests or the favour of the reviewed agencies than may be appropriate.”

In a statement, NSICOP said it has had “productive” conversations with both offices of the national security and intelligence advisor and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Those conversations “helped address significant and pressing challenges faced by the committee in accessing information,” according to Lisa-Marie Inman, the executive director of the NSICOP secretariat.

Inman added that, in the opinion of NSICOP chair David McGuinty, “the committee enjoys a good relationship with the security and intelligence community.”

“(The relationship) is collegial, productive and mutually dedicated to strengthening accountability and effectiveness,” Inman wrote in a statement to Global News.

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“Building and maintaining a relationship of trust is an ongoing effort, in particular because an appropriate relationship between a review body and those reviewed will and should always have a necessary tension, and the past four years of the committee’s operation have built the linkages and structures required to ensure that the committee is able to rigorously carry out its mandate.”

Created in 2017, NSICOP has had a rocky road in establishing itself as a central tool for transparency and accountability in the typically shadowy world of intelligence and national security.

In 2018, one of its members – former Conservative cabinet minister Tony Clement – was forced to resign from the committee after finding himself in a sexting and extortion scandal. National security observers expressed concern at the time that intelligence agencies would hold back information after it was revealed a member of the committee could potentially be compromised.

The Conservative Party also decided to boycott the committee after the Liberal government withheld information on the firing of two Chinese scientists from a sensitive infectious diseases laboratory in Winnipeg.

After Erin O’Toole’s ouster as leader, the Conservatives relented and put forward new members for the committee.

NSICOP reviews more than just organizations traditionally thought of as spy agencies – the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). It’s also mandated 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.

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By law, the committee “is entitled to have access to any information that is under the control of a department and that is related to the fulfilment of the committee’s mandate.” That includes information protected by solicitor-client privilege.

The committee submits its reports to the prime minister, and officials scrub the reports of information that could compromise national security before releasing a censored version publicly.

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