OTTAWA — The chair of the oversight committee tasked with reviewing Canada's national security and intelligence agencies sighed when asked if a report probing foreign interference threats would be tabled before Parliament breaks for summer.
Liberal MP David McGuinty faced questions before a Commons committee for the first time as chair of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) Monday.
"We are working as fast as we can. We are putting in many extra hours. We are really trying very hard to complete the report," McGuinty told the standing committee on public safety and national security in French.
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Last month, the Communications Security Establishment released an update on "Cyber Threats to Canada's Democratic Process," but that report was published by an agency NSCICOP monitors.
NSICOP's upcoming review will examine how all national security and intelligence agencies respond to foreign interference threats. It will not focus on electoral integrity, and will not delve into issues of cybersecurity or foreign investments, McGuinty said.
The NSICOP chair had previously said it was the committee's goal to have its review of foreign interference threats tabled before the House adjourns in June.
The problem is the legislation provides for tabling reports 30 days after any redacting is carried out.David McGuinty, NSICOP chair
To do that, the report would have had to be completed on or before May 3 to give national security and intelligence agencies time to redact sensitive or protected information.
McGuinty pointed to this technicality in the legislation as an explanation for the delay. "The problem is the legislation provides for tabling reports 30 days after any redacting is carried out," he said.
The committee was told that work continues on the foreign interference report, which will address risks faced by ethnic communities and public organizations by such threats.
McGuinty went on to explain its focus would be on identifying foreign actors, what they're up to, and how Canadian authorities are responding.
NSICOP is a relatively new oversight body established in 2017. It is Canada's first oversight body given the mandate to review national security and intelligence agencies including Canada Border Services Agency and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
Among its multi-party members are eight MPs and three senators, all of whom are vetted by the Privy Council Office to determine eligibility for top-secret security clearances.
This extra security measure, and unique mandate to comprehensively review national security matters, is what makes membership in NSICOP different from other standing committees.
It also works outside Parliament and is given its own secretariat and a staff of analysts. Members are appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of the prime minister.
Top-level security clearances are not extended to members' parliamentary staff such as political aides. McGuinty told HuffPost the extra step is unnecessary "because they're not involved in any way shape or form with the work of the committee."
Office staff may know when their MP or senator has meetings, "but they don't know anything about the agendas. They have no idea who's there," he said.
Committee members are required to visit the secretariat to review classified documents — which are not allowed to leave the office.
Prior to NSICOP's inaugural annual report for 2018 published last month, it made headlines for its security review of the prime minister's India trip and affiliation with former Conservative MP Tony Clement.
Clement was a member of the high-profile committee until a sexting scandal forced his resignation from the Tory caucus and NSICOP in November. Two men from the Ivory Coast were charged with blackmailing Clement after allegedly posing as a woman online and cajoling him to share sexually explicit images.
Because Clement held a top-level security clearance, the RCMP and Privy Council Office security officials were tapped to investigate if national security was jeopardized.
The incident served as an impromptu teachable moment, according to the committee's annual report made public in April.
Rennie Marcoux, NSICOP's executive director, told HuffPost Canada that since the Clement incident, security officials have been brought in to give a "refresher on appropriate security measures."
Canada an 'outlier' on national security review
The committee's launch fulfilled a Liberal election promise to create an all-party group to review "every government department and agency with national security responsibilities" because Canada was the "sole nation among our Five Eyes allies" with no oversight body in 2015.
The Five Eyes are signatories to a joint intelligence-sharing agreement. It includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The idea for an oversight review committee had been proposed in the past, but derailed for various reasons.
Stephen Harper's Conservative government was reluctant to introduce an oversight body because of a concern the Bloc Québécois could secure a committee seat and would have a say over national security and intelligence, University of Ottawa law professor and national security expert Craig Forcese told HuffPost.
More from HuffPost Canada:
- Chrystia Freeland Says Foreign Interference In Federal Election 'Very Likely'
- Liberals Unveil Plan To Keep Foreign Meddlers Out Of Canada's Next Election
- RCMP Failed To Alert Trudeau's Security Detail About Jaspal Atwal: Review
- Scheer's Office Denies Trudeau Government Offered Briefing On Jaspal Atwal Affair
But now that the committee has been launched, other concerns have been raised about its efficacy. Staffing "experienced parliamentarians" with a solid grasp on how Ottawa functions will be key to NSICOP's longevity, according to Carleton University assistant professor Stephanie Carvin.
Carvin, a former national security analyst with the federal government, noted that committee member and veteran NDP MP Murray Rankin has announced he won't run for re-election. Carvin called Rankin's looming departure "really unfortunate."
NSICOP has earned early praise for transparency, being a proxy of sorts between secretive national security and intelligence agencies and 37 million Canadians.
Carvin said Canadians tend to be a little apathetic when it comes to national security concerns compared to immediate pocketbook issues. But with increasing concerns about security, privacy and new technologies "in the age of Snowden," she said the tide is beginning to shift.
The committee is a new opportunity to provide Canadians with "sober second thought" on issues of national security in plain language, she said.
An example of this is last month's NSICOP release, which was the first national security report to publicly identify China for conducting "espionage and foreign influence activities in Canada."
It also included a section that quoted the military's disinterested responses to recommendations to introduce a legislative framework to make the department of national defence (DND) and the Canadian Armed Forces' (CAF) intelligence operations less secretive.
NSICOP has stated it will examine DND and CAF's "collection, use, retention and dissemination of information on Canadian citizens" in one of four reports slated for release in 2019. Committee members and military officials are tightlipped on what area(s) of military intelligence that were deemed ripe for a special review.
The publication of that report will follow the release of the review of foreign interference threats — both of which will likely be made public after October's election