OTTAWA - Former Conservative cabinet minister Chuck Strahl is the new head of the watchdog that keeps an eye on the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
Strahl's immediate appointment as head of the Security Intelligence Review Committee comes seven months after the sudden resignation of his predecessor and smack in the middle of a current controversy about spy agency oversight.
Strahl, 55, was first elected to the House of Commons in 1993 and went on to hold several cabinet portfolios in Stephen Harper's cabinet, most recently serving as transport minister.
He announced in 2005 that he was suffering from lung cancer brought on by exposure to asbestos years before. Strahl stayed active in government, although he did not run for re-election last year.
The review committee's last chairman, medical doctor Arthur Porter, resigned in November amid questions about his private business dealings.
Composed of appointees — including many former politicians over the years — the committee carries out studies of various CSIS activities, reporting to Parliament annually.
It is the lone watchdog over the spy agency following the Conservatives' decision to abolish the inspector general's office, which reported to the minister, in order to save money. The inspector general issued an annual certificate stating whether CSIS had complied with the law and ministerial direction.
The government says the review committee will take over the inspector general's duties, but has not explained how it will do so. The committee generally examines past actions of the spy service, whereas the inspector general was considered the minister's "eyes and ears" on CSIS.
The review committee's latest planning report, tabled in Parliament, indicates that its staff and budget will not increase.
Porter resigned after the National Post newspaper reported that the Montreal cancer specialist had forged a business arrangement with a notorious international lobbyist.
The article revealed Porter, a native of Sierra Leone, once struck a deal with middleman Ari Ben-Menashe on a $120-million aid-for-development initiative from Russia. It would have given African Infrastructure Group, a firm owned by Dr. Porter and his family, the chance to manage infrastructure projects in his homeland.
Ben-Menashe is a controversial figure who claims involvement with Israel's spy service. His Montreal consultancy has done work for notorious Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe.
Porter said the devastating aftermath of civil war in Sierra Leone motivated him to explore options to help the country rebuild its infrastructure, adding he did not let his business interests interfere with review committee responsibilities.
But Porter said he was aware "that the media portrayal has the potential to tarnish" the review committee's credibility, prompting him to quit.
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