U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden criticized the inadequate oversight of Canada’s intelligence operations on Wednesday, calling its framework "one of the weakest" in the Western world.
In a live chat moderated by CBC Radio host Anna Maria Tremonti, Snowden touched on the topic of mass surveillance and its potential impacts on Canadians’ civil liberties.
"Canadian intelligence has one of the weakest oversight frameworks out of any Western intelligence agency in the world," Snowden said in a video link from Russia.
"It’s pretty amazing that we have the Canadian government trying to block the testimony of former prime ministers, you know, who’ve had access to classified information, who understand the value of these programs."
Four of the country's former prime ministers — Paul Martin, Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark, and John Turner — added their voices to the debate last month, calling for increased oversight over Canadian intelligence to balance proposed sweeping changes in Bill C-51.
They pointed out the "lack of a robust and integrated accountability regime" impedes their overall effectiveness, making it difficult to meaningfully assess the efficacy and legality of Canada’s national security agencies."
"This poses serious problems for public safety and for human rights," they said in a statement.
If passed, Bill C-51 would expand the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and give police the authority to make preventive arrests and detain individuals without a warrant.
The legislation passed a second reading vote last month.
When asked about the Conservative government’s proposed anti-terror bill, Snowden reminded the audience “terrorism is an extraordinarily rare natural disaster.”
The former NSA contractor added it’s important to not "throw away all of our rights, all of our liberties, all of our traditional freedoms, because we're afraid of rare instances of criminal activity."
"The technical capability to enforce that perfectly all the time — I think that means something very profound for the future of Western society,” he said referring to the possibility of more surveillance measures to monitor the lives of private citizens. “We really need to think about if that’s really what we want to embrace."
A public safety committee is set to hear expert testimony about Bill C-51 beginning next week.
'Minimal' benefits and consequences
The anti-terror bill has received waves of criticism from legal experts and academics since it was tabled in late January by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Law professors Craig Forcese and Kent Roach have emerged as vocal critics of the bill’s broad scope, calling it "poorly constructed' and "inherently flawed."
Concerns about the overall effectiveness of expansive surveillance powers have long been debated south of the border since Snowden leaked a trove of classified NSA documents to journalists in 2013.
Last year, a report from an independent federal privacy and civil liberties watchdog in the U.S. concluded the proliferation of mass surveillance programs led by the NSA have resulted in "minimal" impacts in thwarting terrorist attacks.
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board recommended the U.S. government end the program in 2014.
Earlier this year, a European human rights committee determined mass surveillance isn’t enough to curtail terrorist agendas. The 32-page report also warned about potential abuses of power, especially within data-sharing mandates between the “Five Eyes” partner countries which includes Canada.
"The consequences of mass surveillance tools such as those developed by the U.S. and allied services falling into the hands of authoritarian regimes would be catastrophic," read the report authored by Dutch politician Pieter Omtzigt.
It warned, "In times of crisis, it is not impossible for executive power to fall into the hands of extremist politicians, even in established democracies."
On Wednesday, a joint Canadian project unveiled a complete collection of the NSA documents Snowden leaked to journalists nearly two years ago.
Approximately 400 documents are available in the archive, a small fraction of the estimated 50,000 files accessed by Snowden. It’s the first time the documents have been indexed and made available online.
With files from The Canadian Press
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