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New spy-accountability bill will create easily muzzled watchdog, report says

Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 8, 2016. Photo by Blair Gable

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

Canada's new spy-accountability legislation will create a parliamentary watchdog that prime ministers can keep on a short leash, or even muzzle, a report on the bill by the Library of Parliament says.

The Liberal government has said the national-security legislation will create an independent committee of MPs that will have regular briefings from government spy agencies on their activities.

However, a report on Bill C-22 suggests the national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians could end up "in effect, accountable to the Prime Minster alone."

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The report, done by the non-partisan Library of Parliament and released this week, is a synopsis of the bill for Parliamentarians. Such reports are among the information services the staff of the library provide to MPs and senators.

The Library of Parliament's report points out that the bill would allow prime minsters and cabinet to shape, block or censor the committee's work. This hits a decidedly different tone than an essay published this week by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who said Bill C-22 creates a committee that "will set its own agenda and report when it sees fit."

Every democracy has to determine how far legislators should be able to go to act as a check on government spies, who typically work under secret orders from presidents and prime ministers.

Canada gives its elected politicians less information about and fewer review powers over the security agencies than most governments do. And, unlike its closest allies, Canada has not cleared any parliamentarians to hear state secrets.

Under C-22, that would change. The prime minister would pick nine lawmakers, mostly MPs but up to two senators, who would receive regular briefings on the activities of national security agencies such as the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment.

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How much the committee members would be able to access state secrets is in question because the legislation would allow cabinet ministers to block reviews of some spy programs and thwart the committee's bids to see sensitive documents. "Bill C-22 authorizes ministers to refuse to provide information," the Library of Parliament's synopsis points out.

While committee members are to be given broad powers of inquiry, they will not always be able to share what they find with the public. The Library of Parliament's synopsis points out that MPs and senators could face prosecution if they spill state secrets inside the House of Commons or Senate.

The national-security committee would prepare an annual report for the prime minister of all the reviews it has conducted, including its findings and recommendations. It would also be able to draft special reports for the prime minster, who is, in turn, tasked with presenting these reports to Parliament after vetting them and within 45 days of receiving them, but can censor them before making them public.

The bill "permits the prime minister, after consultation with the [committee] chair, to direct the revision of annual or special reports if he or she is of the opinion that public disclosure of the information would be injurious to national security, national defence, or international relations," the Library of Parliament synopsis says.

The closest comparison to the proposed Canadian legislative committee is one that existed in Britain before 2013. But that year, the British Parliament changed its long-standing legislation to give its committee more independence, and more power to challenge spy operations.

During the 2015 election campaign, the Liberals promised to create such a national-security legislative committee as they positioned themselves as a more transparent alternative to the Conservative government of the day.

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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