Why is Harper content to let CSIS keep him in the dark?
By Andrew Mitrovica | Apr 16, 2015 8:59 pm
When it comes to strengthening what passes for oversight of Canada’s spy service, Stephen Harper doesn’t listen to his critics. Maybe he’ll start listening to his friends.
Earlier this week, I spoke at length with a former senior government official who not only spent decades deep inside the Canadian spy biz, he also worked closely with, and remains a political ally of, the prime minister.
This former official — who agreed to be quoted only on condition of anonymity — is an experienced hand in the netherworld of intelligence. Academics, journalists and politicians of all political stripes — including, no doubt, Harper himself — would all attest to his ability to navigate the tricky bureaucratic terrain where politics and espionage meet.
So when a universally respected ex-official — someone who helped Harper settle into office when he first arrived in Ottawa — suggests that the sweeping powers the Canadian Security Intelligence Service will get under Bill C-51 demand stronger mechanisms to keep our spies in check, the prime minister can’t blow it off. He can ignore it at his peril, but he has to acknowledge he’s the only one left in the know who thinks CSIS can be trusted with these new powers without someone looking over its shoulder.
My source began by questioning Harper’s “surprising” decision in 2012 to shut down the Inspector General’s Office — ostensibly the Public Safety minister’s eyes and ears inside CSIS.
“I found it puzzling. It’s cheap. There were a little group of people that were keeping an eye on what was going on, trying to see what was coming down the railroad that might be troublesome … and able to persuade CSIS not to go there. I thought it a very useful position to have. I didn’t understand it. It took me completely by surprise.”
The official noted that, despite its anemic resources — a paltry $1 million budget and a staff of eight — the IG’s office played a key role in making sure the government didn’t get blindsided by CSIS.
“The IG’s mandate was to make sure that if anything was going wrong with CSIS … he or she would keep the minister up to date and give he or she a heads-up that something should be done about that.”
Indeed, IGs like Maurice Archdeacon, David Peel and Eva Plunkett did such a good job of warning ministers of potential problems that senior CSIS officials complained loudly, sometimes publicly, that they were a pain in the ass.
Peel told me in an interview for my book about CSIS that the spy service’s then-director, Ward Elcock, was so infuriated by his prying that he actually refused to speak with him. He left that chore to his right-hand man, Jim Corcoran, widely known inside CSIS as ‘Mr. Fix-It’.
“There is this sense that they (CSIS) can get away with things … they were not open in a way they should be to scrutiny,” Peel told me. (The distinguished former diplomat died in 2009.)
Incredibly, Peel also revealed that Elcock failed to keep the minister responsible for CSIS informed about what CSIS was up to, despite written instructions to do so.
“Part of my problem with (Elcock) was that I didn’t think that he was keeping the minister well enough informed about issues and problems and what the service was doing where the minister had, in general terms, given directives that he wanted to be kept informed about such things,” Peel said.
Think about that: An unelected CSIS director kept an elected cabinet minister in the dark about what the spy service was up to. And the office that raised the alarm no longer exists — courtesy of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Giving CSIS fresh powers in the absence of real, robust oversight effectively gives the spy service free rein to do what it wants, to anyone, whenever it wants.
Politicians can’t get in front of scandals if they don’t see them coming. Our anonymous official, for one, thinks that it would be smart of Harper to consider re-opening the IG’s office. “I think that a lot of people might find that a pretty good idea …
“You need to have someone who is capable of dealing with everybody, being honest and truthful and sometimes a bit hard-nosed, and yet do it in a way that won’t antagonize everyone that they wouldn’t cooperate. I’m sure that there are people all over the place that could do a good job.”
He also suggested that Harper revisit a proposal made during the Chretien administration to grant MPs and senators on the national security subcommittee top-secret security clearance, allowing them to be briefed by the Security Intelligence Review Committee — the spy service’s current, and wholly inadequate, oversight mechanism — on sensitive intelligence matters.
“You would have had SIRC reporting classified material to a Parliamentary committee. That would have worked.”
That proposal, the official said, was apparently rejected (wisely, I believe) by several MPs and senators — including Progressive Conservative members — who were pushing for full parliamentary oversight of CSIS, complete with the experienced staff and healthy budget that would put Canada’s oversight on par (on paper, at least) with congressional oversight of the vast U.S. intelligence infrastructure.
“I think they were asking for too much. But they were saying that they weren’t going to go along with some half-assed system.”
The big hurdle facing parliamentarians who support establishing parliamentary oversight of CSIS, the official added, is that the spy service has convinced successive Liberal and Conservative governments to dismiss the idea as untenable.
The official suggested that, since the Harper government clearly has no appetite for full-fledged parliamentary oversight, giving parliamentarians top-secret security clearance and SIRC briefings might be a workable compromise.
But SIRC, he said, should get more people and money to do its job. “SIRC needs to put in a Treasury Board submission for more resources … I think it would be ideal for SIRC to report to a committee of the House of Commons and Senate which would be able to accept very sensitive information about what was going on so that Parliament itself had an eye on what was going on, which it does not have at the moment.”
Harper is giving much wider powers to an intelligence service with a bad habit of keeping ministers of the Crown out of the loop. There’s still time for him to heed the advice of people who’ve seen this movie before. I doubt he will.
Andrew Mitrovica is a writer and journalism instructor. For much of his career, Andrew was an investigative reporter for a variety of news organizations and publications including the CBC’s fifth estate, CTV’s W5, CTV National News — where he was the network’s chief investigative producer — the Walrus magazine and the Globe and Mail, where he was a member of the newspaper’s investigative unit. During the course of his 23-year career, Andrew has won numerous national and international awards for his investigative work.