Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? While Latin may have gone the way of the dinosaurs, the meaning behind that ancient Roman phrase couldn't be more relevant: Who watches the watchers?
A peculiar situation has emerged in this country since 9/11: intelligence gathering has become more important while the review process for these activities has been diminished.
Our security officials haven't had as free a hand to carry out their business since the cavalier days of the RCMP Security Service, which was found to have been involved in barn burning and other illegal activities in the 1970s.
Once almost the exclusive turf of the Mounties, intelligence gathering is now conducted by 14 different federal agencies, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Department of National Defence, Canada Border Services Agency, and the Communications Security Establishment.
There are numerous ways to hold these agencies accountable. The most far-reaching is an oversight system, where an independent body is granted leverage over an agency's management, such as by holding some purse strings. Another option is to have a review process, where the agency is examined after the fact to ensure they have behaved in a legal manner. Canada has generally followed the latter approach with respect to CSIS and CSE, but has no review system in place for any of the other agencies.
The Harper government is undermining our country's already inadequate system. Just three years ago, the prime minister shut down the Office of the Inspector General, a watchdog tasked with ensuring that CSIS avoided dirty tricks. The government justified the move as a cost-saving measure, a laughable claim given its $1 million budget. Harper spends the same amount of money each year keeping two Chinese pandas at the Toronto Zoo. Talk about priorities.
The government further rationalized the shutdown by arguing that the watchdog's work overlapped with that of the Security Intelligence Review Committee. Not true, they were complimentary.
SIRC has had a tough go as of late, and that's putting it charitably. In 2011, the body's chair, Arthur Porter, resigned in the face of serious fraud allegations. Does Porter's appointment show a prime minister who takes intelligence review seriously? This at a time when the government is implementing a KGB model at CSIS, whereby the agency pursues both domestic and foreign intelligence. All of our allies have separate organizations because they are afraid of contamination.
Other review mechanisms that remain in place suffer from weaknesses. Unlike SIRC, the review of CSE is carried out by one retired judge. But if a committee format was deemed necessary for the review of CSIS, why isn't it needed for CSE? A group is more likely to provide a robust review function than one individual. This is especially the case when that individual only has a staff of 10 to monitor an agency with 2,100 employees and roughly half a billion dollars in annual expenditures.
Other absurdities abound. There's no review system for Canada's special forces. Canada's national security budget has been cut to meet the political need for a balanced budget. 180 intelligence officers were recently laid off from CBSA. And the Department of National Defence says it doesn't have enough funds to set up a review mechanism for military intelligence. An improved review system would shed more light on why these inexplicable actions are taking place.
One promising means of addressing the gap in national security review would be to vest Parliament with some of that responsibility. Canada holds the shameful distinction of being the only country among the Five Eyes, the international intelligence partnership that includes the U.K. and U.S., without some form of intelligence review by its legislative body. This needs to change.
But that alone won't fix everything. The U.S. has legislative oversight mechanisms in place and yet couldn't avoid scandals around torture. An accountable national security apparatus in Canada requires both parliamentary review and stronger independent review bodies. This would not only reassure the public, but also national security officials, many of whom recognize that an improved system would cause them to perform even better.
The spy business is certainly critical to Canada's security. But if we are to heed Lord Acton's warning that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," then we need a better system for watching the watchers. With Harper looking to pass even more anti-terrorism legislation, this problem will become only more important in the future.
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