POLITICS

CSIS And CSEC Spy Chiefs To Face Public Grilling Today

02/03/2014 11:59 EST | Updated 04/05/2014 05:59 EDT
Canada's security chiefs will face a public grilling over allegations of widespread spying later this afternoon. 

The heads of Canada's two spy agencies, CSEC and CSIS, as well as the prime minister's security adviser, are scheduled to appear before the Senate committee on national security and defence. The meeting is to begin at 4 p.m. ET. CBCNews.ca will livestream the proceedings. 

Attending the meeting will be John Forster, chief of the Communications Security Establishment, which is Canada's cybersecurity agency; Michel Coulombe, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the country's primary intelligence agency; and Stephen Rigby, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's national security adviser. 

This meeting comes just days after CBC News broke the story that CSEC used airport Wi-Fi to track Canadian travellers, according to secret documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The meeting is part of the Senate committee's "ongoing responsibility" to call in authorities responsible for intelligence on behalf of Canadians once a year, said committee chair Senator Daniel Lang. 

In an interview with the CBC's Hannah Thibedeau, Lang said that the question of whether intelligence activities are impeding upon the privacy rights of Canadians — such as with the recent revelations of airport Wi-Fi tracking — will be on the table.

"The basic issue really comes down to the question of these particular agencies being able to do what we ask them to do and, at the same time, ensure Canadians' personal privacy is being respected and that Canadian laws and policies are being adhered to," Lang said.

Part of that, he said, is understanding the types of threats Canadians face.

"I don't think that Canadians are aware, to the extent that they should be, of the very real terrorist threats that are going on day by day as far as Canada is concerned," Lang said. 

"This is one of the forums that that message can be conveyed to Canadians to ensure our security is being taken care of and adequately taken care of." 

Furthermore, Lang said, this is "parliamentary accountability" for the heads of Canada's spy agencies — an opportunity for security officials to explain themselves and for Canadians to listen in.

Better oversight needed: opposition

Opposition members in the House of Commons have long demanded more parliamentary oversight of the country's national security agencies.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris tabled a motion last fall to create a parliamentary committee to determine the best way to oversee CSEC and CSIS. The motion was defeated.

Somewhat similar to Harris's motion, Liberal public safety critic Wayne Easter will table one in the House tomorrow to order CSEC to end all illegal monitoring of Canadians and increase proper oversight of the cybersecurity agency via a national security parliamentary committee.

Last week, the interim privacy commissioner released a report calling for an overhaul of Canada's privacy legislation and improvement of the capability of spy agency watchdogs.