On C-51, ‘just trust us’ doesn’t cut it anymore
By Andrew Mitrovica | May 1, 2015 4:29 pm
Richard Fadden looks like a serious fellow who likes serious jobs. These days, the silver-haired, sober-sounding public servant is Stephen Harper’s national security advisor.
It’s a big job with big responsibilities — primarily keeping the prime minister abreast of potentially combustible national security and geopolitical issues. Before his current gig, Fadden was deputy minister of national defence and director of Canada’s spy service, CSIS.
Last week, Fadden appeared before a Senate committee examining Bill C-51, the government’s so-called ‘anti-terror’ legislation. It was a depressing performance. He was asked about the glaring absence of a working oversight mechanism in this sweeping, ramshackle security bill. His response: Trust us.
Fadden’s task before the committee was simple: Sell C-51, a dangerously flawed bill that has been eviscerated, clause by cockeyed clause, by academics, former judges, lawyers and civil rights advocates nationwide.
Dutiful apparatchik that he is, Fadden droned on for little more than an hour, dismissing the bill’s many critics as misguided and suggesting that Canadians have nothing to fear from a security service getting vast new powers to ‘disrupt’ potential terrorist plots and break our highest laws with a judge’s permission.
“(The bill) seems more frightening than it really is,” he said. There now. Feel better?
Fadden’s remarks ran down the list of government bromides: the need to prevent future attacks, to thwart the “radicalization” of Canadian kids. He also cited several RCMP and CSIS ‘successes’ in preventing terrorist attacks — ironic, since that seems to suggest our security services are muddling through just fine under the laws we have now.
(It’s also instructive to note that Fadden didn’t call attention to, nor was he asked about, still-unchallenged reports of a CSIS agent playing an instrumental role in trying to spirit three “radicalized” female students to Syria to join Islamic State.)
Pressed by Liberal senators about the bill’s lack of any reasonable level of oversight for CSIS, Fadden claimed that while he didn’t have “operational control” over CSIS, he enjoys a lot of “influence” with the spy service, the prime minister and cabinet.
“If I think there is real problem, I have access to the prime minister and ministers,” he said.
Not done, Fadden then lectured the committee about Parliamentary rules and procedures, insisting that the Public Safety minister is ultimately responsible for “oversight” of CSIS.
“I find it interesting that in this debate about oversight and review, we tend to ignore the responsibilities of ministers. I must say when I was director of CSIS, I never considered my minister to be a rubber stamp,” Fadden said.
So here’s what we’re getting by way of reassurance. C-51 looks “frightening” but it isn’t really — not when viewed from Fadden’s altitude in the security sphere. The security services will never use the vast new powers being granted by the bill to cross the line on Canadians’ civil liberties because Richard Fadden won’t let them. And besides, CSIS is beholden to the Public Safety minister — and we all know how seriously Steven Blaney takes his job.
What a crock. Ever since its inception in 1984, Conservative and Liberal ministers responsible for the agency have said repeatedly, both in and outside the House of Commons, that they do not and cannot get involved in the day-to-day operations of CSIS. And we’re supposed to believe Blaney, the guy who was making Holocaust comparisons during his own committee appearance on the bill, is going to be the one to break that streak?
At least Conservative Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen was reassured. “Thank you, Mr. Fadden, for one of the best presentations I’ve heard on this bill,” the prime minister’s former press secretary gushed. “You’ve answered most of my questions.”
One of the more disturbing aspects of Fadden’s performance before the committee was how myopic it was. He made pointed reference to terrorist attacks against “Western interests” and Canada’s “allies” in Paris, Madrid and London. He claimed that Canada’s “priorities” in combatting terror only changed after the Americans were attacked on 9/11.
At no point during his testimony did he mention the largest mass murder in Canadian history — the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182. Most of the 329 victims aboard that flight were Canadians; 86 were children. It was a terrorist attack that made the European attacks cited by Fadden seem subtle. So why didn’t he bring it up?
Because it didn’t fit the narrative. The Air India affair was a black eye for Canadian security and law enforcement. CSIS and the RCMP — the agencies Fadden never tires of describing as “second to none” — were so incompetent and preoccupied with turf wars that they failed, despite ample warning, to stop the terrorist attack, even though they had the tools to do so. And the Air India terror plot was engineered and executed in Canada; its intended victims were Canadians who hailed from every province, save P.E.I.
“I stress that this is a Canadian atrocity,” said former Supreme Court Justice John Major in his exhaustive report on the attack. “For too long the greatest loss of Canadian lives at the hands of terrorists has been somehow relegated outside the Canadian consciousness.”
Dr. Bal Gupta agrees. In an interview, the chair of the Air India 182 Victims’ Families Association — who lost his wife in the attack — told me he is growing weary of having to remind officials like Fadden that they need to remember what happened to our fellow Canadians on Air India 182.
“If he did not mention (Air India) it is a serious lapse. Somehow, I think even today, some people forget about Air India. This is a sad fact. On more than one occasion, I have had to remind them.”
Air India was and remains a shining example of security service incompetence at its absolute worst. C-51 wouldn’t have prevented it. So while the bill will most certainly pass, the government’s arguments in its favour stand convicted of their own faulty logic. Unless, however, we’re all willing to just trust the Harper government — and Richard Fadden.
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.