Ottawa

Waiting just around the corner is the watchdog the RCMP fears. Now straining at the leash held by Justice Dennis O'Connor is a strange beast made necessary by bad policy and worse treatment of Maher Arar.

Two months after his first report ripped the RCMP for putting an innocent Canadian in harm's way, O'Connor is adding finishing touches on recommendations to make the famous sometimes infamous force publicly accountable. There isn't a shred of doubt he will tell Prime Minister Stephen Harper that spying is too intrusive to be left to spies.

Somehow that essential truth was forgotten or ignored in the post-9/11 scramble to make North Americans feel safe and, if they weren't, to insulate politicians from blame. Poorly conceived and hurriedly executed legislation pushed the RCMP back into the anti-terrorism front lines with predictable results for Arar as well as for one of the few remaining national icons.

O'Connor is now trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle. Along with restoring public confidence, Ontario's associate chief justice needs to find a structure strong enough to hold horsemen with a rogue history of breaking free of their political reins.

Irony of ironies, the model now under O'Connor's microscope is the one created the last time the RCMP was caught hiding abuse of power from its political masters. After yet another inquiry, the federal government created the civilian Canadian Security Intelligence Service along with an external, independent review committee with the power to open files and the duty to report its findings to Parliament.

Originally slow to reach speed, and occasionally imperfect, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) is nevertheless the most convincing compromise yet between defending national interests and protecting individual privacy.

It not only works, it would have rendered unnecessary the lengthy, costly O'Connor inquiry if only CSIS had been suspected of fingering Arar as an Islamic extremist to the U.S.

But that doesn't mean an expanded SIRC or a clone is the RCMP answer. In fact, the federal government is trying hard to ignore the obvious solution staring it in the face.

As former CSIS director Reid Morden astutely argues, the way forward is to go back. Ottawa was right to separate policing from security intelligence in 1984 and wrong when it jammed them together in 2001.

Somehow, the reason escaped Liberals five years ago and still confuses many Canadians today. As much as police and spies need to co-operate, their purposes are starkly different.

Police clump around in the black-and-white world of crime, gathering evidence, laying charges and bringing the accused to trial.

Spies wander the grey zones of suspicion where dangers may be real or imagined and guarding the nation is infinitely more pressing than securing convictions.

Security nets are rarely seamless. But Morden is again correct when he says, as he did this week in an interview, that Canadians will be best protected when those distinct roles are recognized and CSIS investigations are smoothly transferred to the RCMP when threats become criminal.

Morden would do more to encourage efficiency and discourage long-standing rivalry. A senior mandarin would make sure only one agency is actively investigating and that cases don't fall through the cracks.

Those are elegant solutions to bedevilling problems. Sadly, they are almost certain to trip over crude politics.

As much as new governments delight in dumping troubles on the old, law-and-order Conservatives aren't anxious to tell Canadians that dispatching police to fight terrorists was a dumb Liberal idea. Along with true, that's counterintuitive and this government would rather gnaw glass than ask citizens to hurt their heads noodling through complexity.

A courageous administration, perhaps one with a majority, would seize this moment for overdue reform.

It would start by accepting that the RCMP is the Austin Powers of spooks and that imposing review is a repair, not a fix. Then it would refocus the force on fighting sophisticated crime and away from providing distracting, if politically pleasing, contract policing to most provinces.

But instead of making a dysfunctional police force functional, the federal government is tilted toward imposing review on a force that will resist and should be allowed to get on with policing not spying out of sight and reach of politicians.

About all that's missing now is for the RCMP to give its new watchdog a reason to bark.


James Travers's national affairs column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. jtraver@thestar.ca.