Tue, January 27, 2004

RCMP watchdog wants expanded role of monitoring Mountie security operations

OTTAWA (CP) - The watchdog that probes complaints about the RCMP says it - not a new agency - should be given the job of keeping an eye on the Mounties' security and intelligence activities.

The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP said Tuesday the federal government risks a confusing overlap if it creates another body to look over the police force's shoulder.

The government announced last month it would set up an independent "review mechanism" to monitor the RCMP's intelligence branches amid growing reservations about the behind-the-scenes role the Mounties play in the fight against terrorism.

Those worries deepened last week when RCMP officers seized materials from reporter Juliet O'Neill in an effort to find the source of an information leak about Maher Arar, an Ottawa engineer who was deported to his native Syria on suspicions of terrorism.

Critics have denounced the search as a violation of press freedom.

The complaints commission is conducting a probe of the Arar case to determine what role the RCMP may have had in his arrest by U.S. authorities and subsequent removal to Syria.

Still, commission chairwoman Shirley Heafey says there is increasing public concern "that there is no effective civilian oversight of the national security activities being performed by the RCMP."

For most of the last century, the RCMP had broad responsibilities for security and intelligence as well as policing. But scandals and civil rights breaches - including opening mail and burning down a barn - led to disbandment of the RCMP Security Service.

In 1984, many of the RCMP's security functions were handed to the newly created Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

At the same time, the government created a watchdog over CSIS, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, or SIRC, with special powers to audit the spy service and receive regular reports on its activities.

In a statement this week, Heafey noted the government has handed the RCMP expanded power to fight terrorism in recent years without giving the complaints commission similar new leeway to oversee the Mounties' activities.

"The most effective option to ensure that there is proper civilian oversight is to give this commission the same powers over the RCMP that SIRC has over CSIS," Heafey said.

Federal officials say the new review mechanism is still in the planning stages.

The Public Safety Department has had "informal discussions" with the complaints commission on the matter, said Sharon Ellis, a spokeswoman for Heafey.

Beefing up the commission's role would close existing gaps, whereas setting up an entirely new watchdog "would perhaps make for some duplication and confusion," Ellis added.

The commission has felt constrained by its current mandate.

For example, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Heafey visited a London, Ont., mosque, where she heard several stories of alleged "racial profiling" by the RCMP, Ellis said. But none of these people felt comfortable making a formal complaint.

"At that time, if we had an audit power, we would have been able to go in (to the RCMP) and say, 'Let me see how you're applying this, what are you doing in this area?' "

Ellis insisted, however, the complaints commission has the ability to look the Arar affair.

Arar, a Canadian citizen who denies any involvement in terrorism, says he suffered months of torture behind bars in Syria. He has scheduled a news conference Wednesday to repeat his call for a full public inquiry into his case.