Presentation by Chuck Strahl
Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence
The Honourable Chuck Strahl, Chair of SIRC
Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting SIRC to appear. It is a privilege to address you and I hope that my comments will lead to a fruitful and productive exchange.
I would like to begin by extending greetings from the other Members of the Committee, who could not be here today.
I was asked to appear before you to discuss SIRC’s Annual Report for 2012–2013, along with an overview of our findings and recommendations. I will happily do this in a few moments, but would like to preface this discussion with brief context on SIRC’s roles and responsibilities, especially as our mandate expanded slightly in the last year following the dismantlement of the Office of the Inspector General of CSIS.
SIRC’s role is relatively easy to describe, if rather complex to execute. Simply put, it was established to provide assurance to Parliament that CSIS is complying with the law in the performance of its duties and functions. In doing so, the Committee ensures that CSIS does not undermine Canadians’ fundamental rights and freedoms while it carries out its mandate to guard against threats to national security.
SIRC is the only independent, external body with the legal mandate and expertise to review CSIS activities. By
“independent and external,” I mean that SIRC is at arms’ length from the Government and does not report to any Minister, but rather directly to Parliament. Moreover, SIRC has the absolute authority to examine all of the Service’s activities, no matter how sensitive and no matter how classified that information may be. The sole exception is Cabinet confidences, but this is the only limitation on our work. In my interactions with international colleagues, I can assure you that SIRC’s power and access are the envy of many of our foreign counterparts.
SIRC has three principal functions: to conduct reviews, to certify the Director of CSIS’s annual report to the Minister of Public Safety – a new responsibility for us - and to investigate complaints. I will provide a short summary of each.
SIRC’s reviews for any given year are designed to yield assessments across a wide range of CSIS activities. Over time, this helps to ensure that we have a comprehensive understanding of all of the Service’s activities. Given the size of our staff, SIRC must be strategic in its selection of areas to review in order to ensure broad, representative and timely coverage of CSIS activities. SIRC considers such things as events or developments in the field of intelligence, Government intelligence priorities, new directions or initiatives of CSIS, and issues raised in the course of SIRC’s complaints functions. In recent years, SIRC has chosen to review some especially timely and topical areas of review, which I will describe in a few moments.
Our certification process requires us to assess the CSIS Director’s annual report to the Minister of Public Safety. The Director’s report provides the Minister with information to assist him in exercising ministerial responsibility for CSIS. SIRC examines this report and then provides assurances regarding the legality, reasonableness and necessity of CSIS’s operational activities as described in the report.
Finally, SIRC investigates complaints, and these can take several forms. Under s. 41 of the CSIS Act, SIRC investigates
“any act or thing done by the Service.” Under s. 42, SIRC investigates complaints about denials or revocations of security clearances to federal government employees and contractors. Far less frequently, SIRC conducts investigations in relation to referrals from the Canadian Human Rights Commission, or Minister’s reports in regards to the Citizenship Act.
The Annual Report you have asked me to talk about is a compilation of the work undertaken within these three functions. In SIRC’s Annual Report for 2012–2013, we included declassified summaries of the nine reviews and five complaints cases we completed, as well as our first Certificate.
Our assessment was that, overall, CSIS’s activities and investigations on threats to Canada’s national security respected the rule of law and that CSIS operated within its mandate. Our assessment was supported by our first Certificate, in which SIRC found that the activities, as they were described in the report, complied with the CSIS Act and Ministerial Directives and constituted a reasonable and necessary exercise of the Service’s powers. SIRC did point out, however, that future reports by the CSIS Director should include a more detailed description of both Section 16 activities (foreign intelligence) and operational activities overseas.
Although we were generally satisfied with the Service’s performance, I would like to take a few moments to discuss some areas of concern we identified in the course of our reviews, as well as the recommendations we made to address those issues.
There is no doubt in our mind that information-sharing is at the forefront of those issues that warrant our close and regular attention. As intelligence agencies work in a more integrated manner to gather information of various threats to national security, SIRC must closely examine how CSIS cooperates and exchanges information with both its domestic and foreign partners.
Accordingly, SIRC examined CSIS’s relationship with CSEC in two studies. We found that a significant risk of closer collaboration between CSIS and CSEC was the potential erosion of control by CSIS over information it provides to CSEC, and, by extension, the Five-Eyes community. SIRC arrived at a similar conclusion following a review of a new warrant power granted to CSIS which carried the risk that a Five-Eyes partner may act independently on CSIS-originated information. We recommended that CSIS develop clearer and more robust overarching principles of cooperation with CSEC and that it develop a regime of caveats and assurances with all Five-Eyes partners to ensure greater control over its intelligence.
Another area SIRC committed to examining is CSIS’s evolving and expanding activities abroad. Two of our reviews focused on these activities. SIRC found that, overall, these overseas collection initiatives have been both measured and cautious, and have not come at the expense of CSIS’s domestic responsibilities. In examining CSIS’s approach to representation abroad, SIRC found that there were both challenges and opportunities. SIRC recommended that CSIS take action to ensure that internal documents that it uses to help manage more effectively its foreign partnerships are accurate, complete, up to date, and relevant.
At the same time, SIRC is mindful of the need to continue looking at CSIS’s activities vis-à-vis threats that are not terrorism-related. For this reason, SIRC looked at how CSIS investigates the changing threat posed by espionage and foreign-influenced activities. We found that there were challenges associated with making the distinction between clandestine activity and legitimate diplomacy and recommended that CSIS fine-tune its policies and practices by identifying common and consistent criteria to determine when an activity has crossed the line.
In recent years, SIRC has also sought to undertake
“baseline” reviews examining the Service’s activities in new areas. This year, SIRC examined CSIS’s support to Canada’s northern perimeter security, which is a government priority. SIRC found that CSIS’s management is currently sufficient, but recommended that CSIS make efforts to ensure that appropriate and specific resources are allocated for northern initiatives in future.
Finally, SIRC examined CSIS’s role in the matter of Mr. Abousfian Abdelrazik. The concerns SIRC raised were that: CSIS inappropriately disclosed classified information; that CSIS created an intelligence assessment that exaggerated and inaccurately conveyed information to domestic partners; and that it excessively reported information not related to the threat, originating from individuals who were not targets. In the decade that has elapsed since Mr. Abdelrazik first left Canada, SIRC and other Commissions of Inquiry have made a number of recommendations which would apply to this file. Accordingly, SIRC made no recommendations in this review.
However, what this review did underscore, in our opinion, is SIRC’s limitation to follow information when it crossed over to other federal departments or agencies. For a number of years now, SIRC has been saying that although it has great powers to review CSIS’s activities and operations, this ability does not extend beyond CSIS. As even greater integration and information-sharing becomes the modus operandi of contemporary intelligence work, SIRC believes it should be equipped with the tools needed to follow and effectively review CSIS’s activities. As we say on our Annual Report, SIRC must be ready with the legislative tools and matching government resource commitments to ensure that the checks and balances enshrined in its mandate remain relevant and effective.
In fact, recent international consternation over revelations that our American neighbours had carried out broad and controversial surveillance activities have led to widespread calls for greater accountability of intelligence agencies. There is a sense that the drive for collective security post 9/11 has come at the price of individual rights and privacy, and that intelligence work should come under closer scrutiny. In Canada, as you know, this has found a vehicle of expression in calls for parliamentary intelligence oversight.
As these discussions unfold, SIRC hopes to have the opportunity to contribute its thoughts and opinions. In the meantime, we will continue to do our work, helping to hold CSIS to account for its performance and to ensure that CSIS’s activities do not infringe on Canadians’ rights and freedoms.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you this afternoon. I would like to end my comments by stressing how important SIRC views its relationship with Parliament. Indeed, when legislators created SIRC almost thirty years ago, our annual report was intended to serve as an important vehicle to keep Parliament properly informed of CSIS’s activities. In SIRC’s first Annual Report, tabled in 1985, the Committee noted that it believed
“that Parliamentarians intended it to act on its behalf” to ensure that CSIS,
“while effectively protecting the nation’s national security against non-military threats, treats individual Canadians fairly.” Almost thirty years later, SIRC still upholds this vision. For this reason, we are pleased to have been invited to appear before you.
I thank you for your attention and I look forward to any questions you may have.
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