Saturday, May 05, 2012

The blind leading the blind at CSIS

As the Canadian spy agency expands its reach and operations, more, not less, oversight is necessary. But this is not how the Harper government sees it   

Government belt-tightening in times of economic uncertainty is hard to argue against, and is in many cases justified. However, the budget implementation bill introduced on April 26 includes plans to scrap a body that, for the sake of all Canadians, ought to have been left alone. 

The office in question is the Inspector General of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), one of two watchdogs whose purpose is to ensure the civilian spy agency remains honest in its efforts to ensure Canadian security. For those who do not know better, shutting down the IG would appear to make sense, as two watchdogs (the other being the Security Intelligence Review Committee) mandated with inspecting the same agency might seem redundant.

But here’s the catch: With the about C$1 million in taxpayer money saved annually by dismantling the IG, the government will be burying what has for many years been the best intelligence watchdog by far. Of the two, the IG is the only one to have provided detailed reports critical of CSIS in recent years.

Maybe the government really needs to save that C$1 million dollar, even if it comes at the price for less accountability in intelligence matters. Maybe, but then, how do we account for Ottawa’s willingness to spend about $25 billion on the F-35, a fifth-generation multi-role combat aircraft whose viability is becoming as questionable as its utility for the Royal Canadian Air Force. 

The SIRC, for its part, has been without a chair for months. Equally problematic is the fact that the arms-length SIRC is physically located within the CSIS headquarters in Ottawa, and that some of its officers, or liaison officers, tend to be former employees at CSIS, which, for reasons that should be rather obvious, is problematic. Furthermore, SIRC has not intrusive powers as a watchdog and often relies on the good graces of the units it monitors to access the information it needs to scrutinize intelligence activity and ensure that operations do not unduly impact civil liberties. What this means, therefore, is that units being audited by SIRC haven no trouble withholding aspects of their activities that risk raising red flags. Without proper access, SIRC simply cannot be certain that it is being given full access to documents pertaining to investigations; in other words, there is no way for it to tell whether it is being denied some of the documentation it needs to conduct a thorough assessment. In other words, SIRC’s role is akin to a police officer asking a drug dealer if he’s an honest, law-abiding citizen, without the powers to search the suspect’s pockets. 

This move by the Conservative government occurs at a time when CSIS continues to expand the scope and reach of its activities, not only domestically, but abroad as well. (The annual budget when I left the Service in 2005 was C$278 million; six years later, it was C$506.6 million.) It also coincides with mounting apprehensions regarding its some morally questionable activities, such as the use of intelligence obtained through torture. And unless the situation has changed since I left the Service in 2005, the agency remains a gerontocracy, one in which promotions often are the result not of competence, but time served, a recipe for the cultivation of incompetence. At the same time, the median age of its intelligence officers at an all-time low. Officers with very little experience are being given increasingly sensitive responsibilities, often in a foreign context. This increases the likelihood that mistakes resulting from inexperience will be committed. 

It would be logical, as the Service enters a more proactive phase in its nearly 30-years of existence, for oversight bodies to be strengthened rather than dismembered. Unless, of course, Canadians — and those who would make Canada their home — are confident that the Harper government can be trusted with the future of this country.

I submitted this op-ed to the Ottawa Citizen, my usual home for articles on Canadian matters. However, Wesley Wark beat me to it by two days, and the editor would not run two articles on the same subject.


Michael Fagan said...

It would appear the Inspector General's office is not the Harper government's dog!

justrecently said...

I'm not familiar with Canadian politics, but could it be that the organization's efficiency is exactly the government's problem?

From this information, I can't see any other point in this move.