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POSTED ON 08/06/06

Plans for oversight under fire

OTTAWA -- Creating a committee of MPs and senators to oversee Canada's national security agencies would be a waste of time if it is attached to the Prime Minister's Office, says Liberal Colin Kenny, who chairs the Senate's national security committee.

With a new government in place, Mr. Kenny says he can't believe the reasons Liberal and New Democratic MPs are calling for the Conservatives to reintroduce what he says was a weak and faulty bill from the previous Liberal government.

The Globe and Mail reported this week that Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day has told some MPs he is planning to bring back a modified version of Bill C-81, which would create a national security committee of parliamentarians. The bill was introduced last November, just days before the Liberal government was defeated.

The bill followed a study by an ad hoc committee of MPs and senators with Liberal MP Derek Lee as chair and Mr. Kenny as vice-chair.

That panel, which included Tory MP Peter MacKay, now Foreign Affairs Minister, recommended an independent, joint committee of MPs and senators with its own staff, a secure building and a $3-million annual budget. Such a structure would be larger than the roughly $2.5-million annual budget of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the civilian watchdog of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada's spy agency.

The committee made its all-party recommendation in the fall of 2004, but when the government's bill arrived last November, the proposed oversight committee was removed from Parliament, meaning its members would not be protected from legal action through parliamentary privilege and would not have powers to obtain documents and summon witnesses.

The national security committee of parliamentarians would be assisted by staff from the Privy Council Office, the public service arm of the Prime Minister's Office.

Mr. Kenny said having the watchdog parliamentarians relying on the most powerful public servants in the federal government would make no sense because they may have authorized some of the conduct by the security agencies that the committee would be looking into.

"The people you're going to be most interested in are the people in PCO," he said. "It strikes me that the people on the committee are likely to find themselves acting as apologists for the government."

Mr. Kenny, whose Senate committee has been a thorn in the government's side in recent years for its reports exposing federal security gaps, says he questions the usefulness of having MPs viewing secret documents if they were barred from making all but the most general public comments about what they'd seen.

"Who in Parliament or the public would be happy to hear another parliamentarian say, 'I've looked at this and it sounds okay?' " Mr. Kenny asked.

Mr. Lee has argued that the public would see such general assurances from MPs as a welcome improvement from the status quo. Now, only cabinet ministers can obtain information about security operations.

In response to his colleague in the Senate, Mr. Lee said it is clear the public service won't accept the ad hoc committee's original proposal because it was too expensive and would have raised concerns from Australia, the United States and Britain about possible leaks, given the large amount of intelligence that is shared among the four countries. Officials who are hired to work in the PCO have already received high-level security clearances, whereas many of the people involved with the separate committee would not have such status.

"Politics is the art of the achievable," he said.

Complicating the government's decision on how to move forward with an oversight committee is the looming report from Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor's public inquiry into the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian who was deported to Syria, where he says he was tortured.

Judge O'Connor's report, which is expected in late summer, is likely to recommend a new system of independent oversight for Canada's security agencies.

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