Members of Parliament trying to investigate threats against Public Safety Minister Vic Toews by the online hacker group Anonymous are facing up to the difficult, perhaps impossible, task that has been put before them.
New Democrat Chris Charlton reminded the Commons procedures and House affairs committee on Thursday – the first day of hearings into a possible breach of privilege by the group against Mr. Toews – its job is to identify the guilty party and to come up with possible remedies.
Anonymous, a loosely affiliated network of unidentified people who use the banner in different places around the world as a means of protest, had threatened to publish embarrassing details of Mr. Toews's private life online if he did not resign and withdraw a bill that opponents say would violate Internet privacy.
Even though the members of the committee feel strongly that MPs should not be threatened or intimidated, Ms. Charlton said, "it's not as clear to me how we go about identifying a culprit in this case." She asked a trio of senior House of Commons staff who were called to testify whether it was realistic to think those responsible will ever be caught.
Audrey O'Brien, the Clerk of the House of Commons, agreed the committee's job would not be easy. "This is unprecedented in that the attacks in question come from an unknown entity," she said.
It is a criminal offence to threaten a public official and one can assume that Mr. Toews has lodged a complaint with the police, Ms. O'Brien added. But as far as the work of the committee goes, "I am not sure that seeking out a culprit as such wouldn't be a giant waste of time."
As the procedures and House affairs committee was looking into the misdeeds of Anonymous, the ethics committee was in another room examining the actions of Adam Carroll, a former Liberal staffer who posted messy details of Mr. Toews's divorce online via a Twitter feed know as Vikileaks30.
Even though Mr. Carroll's lawyer indicated in a letter earlier this week that his client was too ill to testify, the Conservatives on the committee used their majority to issue a summons calling him to appear.
But a number of the Conservatives were late in arriving at the committee meeting Thursday, which gave the opposition a temporary majority. New Democrat MP Charlie Angus used the brief moment of power take the closed-door meeting public and to debate negating the summons. When the tardy Tories showed up, they took the meeting back in camera.
Andrew Scheer, the Commons Speaker, has said he considers the Vikileaks case closed because Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae has apologized to Mr. Toews for the incident.
But Mr. Scheer ruled last week the Anonymous videos constituted a direct threat to Mr. Toews and other members of Parliament and asked the committee to investigate. But some members of the committee questioned just how effective any such investigation would be.
Various MPs agreed, saying they did not know where the study was taking them. And much of the debate on Thursday focused on the security of House of Commons computers rather than the specific threats made against Mr. Toews.
Liberal MP Marc Garneau said it is important for the RCMP to look into the matter because a threat has been uttered. But, Mr. Garneau added, "it is in the nature of our profession that, once in a while, we will be threatened."
While the committee wants to protect members of Parliament to the greatest extent possible, he said, there is no way of preventing this sort of thing from happening in the future. If this permutation of Anonymous is caught and disbanded, Mr. Garneau added, there will be others.
Ms. O'Brien agreed that was the case. She suggested that the strongest response the committee could make would be a statement saying "every member of every political party agrees that a line in the sand was cross by the threats made by Anonymous."
Conservative MP Laurie Hawn, meanwhile, said Anonymous is cowardly.
"I have nothing but contempt for anybody of any organization that abuses free speech in this way," Mr. Hawn said. Extortion of a crime and the police should be on the case, he said. "I think any chance one down and make an example, we should do that."