Overarching intelligence committee urged in report

Proposed oversight group would have advisory as well as investigative role


UPDATED AT 3:05 AM EST Thursday, Jan 13, 2005


OTTAWA -- The federal government should establish a permanent, U.S.-style investigative committee to oversee all Canadian intelligence gathering, and that of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in particular, a soon-to-be-released parliamentary report recommends.

An inquiry carried out last year by an ad hoc joint committee of the Commons and the Senate found substantial gaps in oversight of Canada's intelligence agencies, which include the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Communication Security Establishment, and the Mounties' own burgeoning intelligence contingent. And it found the level of parliamentary oversight in Canadian intelligence matters to be "far behind" that of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

In particular, sources familiar with the report say, the committee found that the RCMP's public complaints commission is no longer adequate to the task of monitoring the national police service's intelligence work. "The public complaints commission is internal," a source said. "The [RCMP] commissioner has the ability to veto its recommendations. . . . A lot of people believe there should be more accountability."

The RCMP's intelligence-gathering function was removed in the mid-1980s and transferred to CSIS after a commission of inquiry into wrongdoing. The Security Intelligence Review Committee, a three- to five-member group of eminent Canadians who are also Privy councillors, was established to act as CSIS's watchdog. SIRC makes annual reports to Parliament.

The Mounties have gradually regained some of their previous intelligence function, a trend that accelerated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Staffing in the RCMP's National Security Investigations Branch has grown to 290 from 180 four years ago, an increase of 40 per cent.

The proposed oversight group, to be called the Parliamentary Intelligence Committee, would have broad powers, including the right to subpoena witnesses and compel testimony. It would play an advisory as well as investigative role and be privy to national secrets. This last issue is likely to be thorny for the government, sources say, because the committee would necessarily include a member of the separatist Bloc Québécois.

The source said this is one reason Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, who is also responsible for public security, has not yet made the report public. "They fear there will be a big public reaction to having a separatist on the national security committee." A spokesman for Ms. McLellan denied this, saying the report is extremely complex and needs to be "carefully analyzed and looked at."

The ad hoc committee was struck last June as a result of a proposal by Prime Minister Paul Martin in December, 2003, to bolster parliamentary oversight of national security. At the time, the Liberals were attempting to burnish their security bona fides, to distinguish themselves from the regime of Jean Chrétien. The commitment was also in keeping with Mr. Martin's democratic reform agenda.

Since then, the idea of increased parliamentary monitoring has gained new impetus, sources say, because of perceived RCMP intelligence bungles in the cases of Syrian-born Canadian Maher Arar and Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill.

Mr. Arar was deported from New York to Syria, where he was imprisoned for a year and reportedly tortured, after RCMP intelligence officers gave their U.S. counterparts what later turned out to be unreliable information about the Ottawa software engineer. The Mounties searched Ms. O'Neill's home and office on grounds that she was leaked information illegally after a story she wrote about Mr. Arar.

The Arar affair is the subject of a public inquiry. However, that inquiry could last as long as a year and Ottawa has kept important testimony secret, sparking further concerns.

A permanent, bipartisan parliamentary oversight committee, several sources suggested, would be ideally positioned to address such concerns. Ms. McLellan's office would give no timetable for releasing the report. Conservative deputy leader Peter MacKay, who sits on the ad hoc committee, urged the government to release it quickly and act on its recommendations. "The need is ever more acute now, post 9/11," he said.

Committee member Joe Comartin, New Democrat MP for Windsor-Tecumseh, said he had been given to understand that the minister will make the report public in February. "We were of a mind that, if she hadn't done it by then, we would."

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