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Super-watchdog over Mounties could emerge from bungled Arar case
Jim Bronskill
Canadian Press

OTTAWA (CP) - A super-watchdog to help keep tabs on the RCMP and other players in the intelligence world could emerge from the bungling that marked the Maher Arar affair.

Some experts see a need for an overarching body that would look over the shoulders of intelligence officers from the alphabet soup of agencies in the federal spy game.

It's an idea that received serious scrutiny at the commission of inquiry into Arar's case led by Justice Dennis O'Connor.

In a September report, the Ontario judge concluded faulty information the Mounties passed to the United States very likely led to Arar's deportation to Syria, where he was jailed and tortured as a mistaken terrorism suspect.

In a second report, to be issued Tuesday, O'Connor will recommend a model for improved monitoring of the national police force's intelligence activities.

"We do need an oversight capacity of some kind that we don't have now," Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day acknowledged Thursday at a Commons committee.

But what would it look like?

Wade Deisman, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa, says two things are needed:

-A retooling of existing watchdogs over the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the domestic spy agency.

-An umbrella oversight body with broader scope to monitor not only the Mounties and CSIS, but other federal outfits with intelligence arms, such as the Canada Border Services Agency.

"I think it's got to factor in all the institutions that constitute the security intelligence matrix now," Deisman said.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, also said there's a need for a watchdog capable of monitoring "the range of forces" with a hand in the intelligence sector.

Dench said newcomers seeking permanent residence in Canada often have trouble even knowing which agency to complain about when their cases go astray because of security questions.

Such cases often involve CSIS as well as immigration and border services officials, she noted. "They are very expert at passing the ball from one to the other when it suits them."

The commission of inquiry has looked at several options, such as expanding the powers of the existing Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, handing review duties to another agency, and creating a complementary, broad-based oversight body.

The former Liberal government announced in December 2003 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.

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 the disbanding 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 formed 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.

O'Connor may recommend changes to modernize those watchdogs.

The federal government has also been mulling creation of a more robust parliamentary committee to review national security matters.

It could invest member MPs with the power to view classified documents to aid their work.

Deisman, however, is wary of leaving oversight entirely to partisan actors, noting U.S. congressional committees can tend to divide along political lines.

"In the Canadian context where we have more parties, it's possible that that's a viable model. But it's still, I think, susceptible to some sort of politicization."

© The Canadian Press 2006

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