canada, canadian search engine, free email, canada news
Parliament may become spy watchdog
Committee investigating: MPs, senators may receive access to classified information
Tim Naumetz
CanWest News Service

OTTAWA - An unprecedented unofficial committee of senators and MPs is travelling the globe in an inquiry that could dramatically increase Parliament's ability to act as a watchdog over spying and domestic operations by Canada's security intelligence agencies.

In response to increased intelligence gathering under tough new anti-terrorism laws following the 2001 attacks in the United States, the interim committee on national security is investigating, among other things, the possibility of a law that would give MPs and senators groundbreaking access to classified intelligence information.

Because Parliament was dissolved last May for the June election, a Cabinet order was required authorizing the committee to receive government funding for at least $150,000 in travel and other expenses to visit Washington, Australia and the United Kingdom through the summer and fall to investigate parliamentary and congressional oversight of intelligence agencies in those countries.

With a rushed mandate to report to Prime Minister Paul Martin and deputy prime minister Anne McLellan by Parliament's resumption in October, House leaders for all parties had to agree to the formation and funding of an interim unofficial committee to meet the tight deadline without formal parliamentary approval.

The committee was created in such a hurry it was unable to arrange the services of a parliamentary clerk and support staff before it began work. Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, the committee's co-chairman, used his personal credit card to pay for his share of travel expenses to Australia.

Mr. Kenny, also chairman of the Senate committee on national security and defence, denied the desire to expand parliamentary oversight of intelligence gathering in Canada is based on a suspicion that aggressive post-9/11 security operations may be violating the legal rights of Canadian citizens.

But the formation of the committee nonetheless follows a widely publicized controversy over the treatment of Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar, who claims either the RCMP or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or both, contributed to his deportation from the United States and subsequent torture at the hands of Syrian authorities.

The committee work also follows on the heels of a public outcry over an RCMP raid on the home of journalist Juliet O'Neill, an Ottawa Citizen reporter who wrote about allegedly classified information in Mr. Arar's case.

Mr. Martin became involved in the controversy by expressing concern about the police action and declaring Ms. O'Neill was "not a criminal."

Also, a prominent former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Reid Morden, last year warned that the Canadian government, in its race to catch up to anti-terrorist laws in the United States and Britain, went too far and passed legislation that overrides fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Charter of Rights.

Mr. Kenny warned in an interview this week that the committee will have to consider the fact that increased access to secret intelligence operations could actually hamstring parliamentarians because they would be unable to make public any wrongdoing or illegal spying and other operations they might stumble upon.

"One of the dilemmas that parliamentarians are going to have to consider very carefully is the trade-offs that will have to be made if they do have access to classified information and their ability then to comment publicly about things," Mr. Kenny said.

MPs and senators on any new oversight committee would have to swear an oath of secrecy like Cabinet ministers to gain access to classified information. The Commons side of any joint Commons-Senate committee would also include at least one Bloc Quebecois MP, which could raise security concerns because of the party's separatist goals.

Liberal MP Derek Lee, the Commons co-chairman of the interim committee, which has already met with intelligence officials and lawmakers in Washington and Australia, said Canada is the only country among Austral ia, the United Kingdom and the United States that has failed to introduce permanent parliamentary oversight of its various intelligence agencies.

Mr. Lee said Canadian security intelligence gathering has increased substantially since the 2001 attacks.

"I and others have been of the view that expansion has outstripped the ability of our current mechanisms to appropriately oversee that particular envelope," Mr. Lee said.

The only permanent agency to monitor intelligence work in Canada is the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which reports to Parliament but oversees only CSIS.

Other departments and agencies involved in security intelligence include the Communications Security Establishment, a top-secret organization that monitors telephone, wireless and radio communications; the RCMP, whose powers have been expanded under the post-9/11 Anti-terrorism Act; the Foreign Affairs department; and the new Canada Border Services Agency.

© National Post 2004

Copyright © 2004 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest Global Communications Corp. All rights reserved.
Optimized for browser versions 4.0 and higher.