HARPER ABOLISHES CSIS OVERSEER’S OFFICE
Jeff Davis, Postmedia News | April 26, 2012 | Last Updated: Apr 26 7:45 PM ET
The government did away with an office mandated to oversee the activities of Canada’s spies Thursday, a move critics say opens the door to abuses of power by the secretive Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
The Office of the Inspector General of CSIS played a key role in ensuring Canada’s spies don’t break the law, according to Jez Littlewood, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies.
“Essentially, the Office of the Inspector General was the eyes and ears of the minister within CSIS,” Littlewood said. “So you’re getting less accountability.”
Until Thursday there were two oversight bodies watching CSIS: the Inspector General and the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC).
Now, only SIRC remains, the change having been executed in the Budget Implementation Act, tabled in Parliament Thursday. The government quietly slipped the change into its omnibus budget bill, and did not publicly announce the abolishment of the Inspector General’s office.
Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the office was abolished to save money.
“It will save taxpayers nearly a million dollars per year,” she wrote in an email.
Carmichael said civilian oversight of CSIS will actually be strengthened by the move, with SIRC and Public Safety officials picking up the slack.
“By consolidating review functions into a single organization we will provide more effective review,” she wrote. “Public Safety Canada will also assume a greater responsibility for providing independent advice to the minister.”
Opposition politicians didn’t buy it.
NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison said less rigorous oversight may tempt CSIS agents to push the boundaries of the law.
“We have many examples of the kind of things that happen when agencies sometimes get overzealous in what they’re doing,” he said. “One of the things that constrains their activities is knowing that there’s civilian oversight in place that’ll do its job and to make sure that they don’t get outside the bounds of what is legal and what’s appropriate.”
Toews has neglected his duty to oversee the spy agency, Garrison said, since he has not appointed a permanent chair to SIRC.
“What we’ve got here is another example of a minister not taking seriously his oversight responsibilities with CSIS,” he said.
Before he became an MP, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae was once a member of SIRC, and said that committee plays a very different role than the inspector. While SIRC takes public complaints and conducts investigations, he said, the inspector general’s office was elbow deep in the day-to-day operations of the spies.
“It double checks and triple checks to make sure the processes are being followed and respected. … It’s hand on,” he said. “The inspector general provides a very, very important role in giving the minister and the government a much clearer sense of where the agency is going and what it’s doing.”
Rae dismissed suggestions that the move would reinforce civilian oversight of CSIS.
“The statement the minister made that this will mean greater accountability is frankly just nonsensical,” he said. “It means less accountability.”
Back in the 1980s, said Littlewood — of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies — Canada was seen as a world leader in terms of civilian oversight of its spy agency, largely because it had two oversight bodies watching its spies.
This is no longer the case, he said, now that the Inspector General’s office has been done away with, and parliamentarians still play only a negligible role in overseeing CSIS.
“We’ve fallen behind,” he said. “Those gaps are well known.”
One of the Inspector General’s key tasks has been transferred to SIRC. This is an annual certificate, which examines whether CSIS “has done anything that is not authorized by the CSIS Act, has contravened any Ministerial Directions or has involved the unreasonable or unnecessary use of its powers.”
Littlewood predicted SIRC will struggle to do all the oversight work itself.
“SIRC is taking on additional responsibilities without a requisite increase in resources,” he said. “They’re asking the existing small staff at SIRC to do more with less.”