CSIS freed from final shreds of oversight

[Source: The Toronto Star]

Ward Elcock was no fan of David Peel’s poking and proding into CSIS. (Oct. 25, 2010) ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

by Andrew Mitrovica

If you are a Canadian citizen, landed immigrant or refugee to this country and you are even the least bit aware of the rights and civil liberties that Canada affords you, then you should be deeply worried today.

Late last week, in its familiar stealth-like fashion, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government shuttered the office of the Inspector General (IG) over Canada’s spy service, CSIS.

The IG acted as the public safety minister’s eyes and ears, monitoring whether or not our powerfully intrusive domestic intelligence service was abiding by its policies and, more important, the law as it went about its key counter-espionage and counter-terrorism responsibilities.

I say “stealth-like” because the Conservative government buried its decision to shut down the IG’s office deep inside a budget bill it tabled last week. If not for the industrious work of Canadian Press reporter Bruce Cheadle, Canadians would have been kept in the dark about this astonishingly wrong-headed decision to pull the plug on the only independent agency that provided some measure of oversight over CSIS’s day-to-day operations.

The IG’s office didn’t have much money or staff to do its important job. Indeed, last year it “enjoyed” a paltry budget of $1 million dollars to go about its work. (A spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews heralded the closure of the IG’s office as a cost-saving measure. The million dollar savings will, I’m sure, put a large dent in the federal deficit.)

Historically, despite its laughable lack of resources, the IG’s office has done a more than adequate, if occasionally admirable job, keeping watch over CSIS. The ever-circumspect Eva Plunkett, the last IG, proved to be up to the job, producing incisive annual reports that were sometimes bluntly critical of CSIS.

In 2009, for example, Plunkett raised the alarm over what she believed to the spy service’s failure to abide by new accountability standards established by the Supreme Court of Canada. At the time, Plunkett expressed profound concern over inaccuracies she unearthed about how the spy service went about its “key core activities.”

Plunkett’s predecessors, including Maurice Archdeacon and notably the late David Peel, took their work equally seriously and routinely held CSIS and its leadership to account. Peel, a distinguished former diplomat, was a particularly effective IG from 1994 until his retirement in 1998.

He often butted heads with CSIS’s then director, Ward Elcock. Peel was singularly adamant in trying to ensure that CSIS went by the book and the law as it conducted its covert work. To write that Elcock was displeased with Peel’s determination would be an understatement. In fact, Elcock was so annoyed with Peel’s poking and prodding, that the haughty CSIS director refused to have any dealings with the persistent IG. He left that chore to his second-in-command.

But that wasn’t all. In retirement, Peel agreed to an on-the-record interview during which he made a troubling revelation. He told me that CSIS’s leadership often left its political masters out of the loop, despite written instructions that the CSIS director had to keep the minister responsible for the service abreast of its clandestine work.

Peel’s unsettling admissions are precisely the reason the IG’s office should remain standing, rather than be demolished. If Canadians are to have any confidence that CSIS is abiding by the law and its policies, then we need men and woman like Peel and Plunkett to be able to do their jobs without fear or favour.

Instead, Ottawa appears to be suggesting that the IG’s responsibilities will be handed to the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC). This supposed cost-saving solution betrays a profound and instructive misunderstanding of SIRC’s responsibilities.

By SIRC’s own admission (you can check its website), it is a review agency, not an oversight body. It’s stated raison d’être is largely to administer complaints it receives from the public about CSIS’s conduct. It does not watch over the spy service’s day-to-day operations. To be sure, SIRC undertakes, from time-to time, “reviews” of the spy service’s policies and operations. But it is powerless to enforce any of its recommendations.

And SIRC is in turmoil. Late last year, its former chair, Arthur Porter, a Montreal physician, reluctantly resigned after what he described as “scurrilous press reports” about his dealings with an Israeli businessman (who has a bizarre, to put it charitably, past) had “challenged his credibility” and raised the “spectre of a conflict of interest” and questions about his “good judgment.”

To date, the Prime Minister has not found the time to appoint a new chair, rendering the review agency essentially rudderless. SIRC has a relatively minuscule budget of $2.2 million and few staff. It’s unlikely that it will be given any more money or resources to exercise any new responsibilities.

So there you have it: no Inspector General, and no new SIRC chair. This is what constitutes accountability over Canada’s spy service today. This, from a government that made a seemingly solemn pledge to make accountability a guiding governing principle. What a dangerous farce.

Andrew Mitrovica is the author of Covert Entry: Spies, Lies and Crimes Inside Canada’s Secret Service.

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