Presentation by Michael Doucet
AFCEA Lunchtime Speaker Series
April 1st 2014, Ottawa, ON
Presentation by Michael Doucet
SIRC Executive Director
Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak here today. I am pleased to be addressing an audience such as this - professionals in the field of defence, security and intelligence. While SIRC may not immediately spring to mind when discussing this field, rest assured that we are a very professional organization and that we play an essential role in the community – that of evaluation and review. I have heard the CDI raise the issue of review for his Branch and I have had many discussions with leaders in the community, including the CDI, on information sharing. These are the two themes I would like to expand on today given that, partially due to technology, information sharing is becoming the modus operandi of the community, and that evaluation and review elevate the quality of organizations in this community and also serve to reassure Canadians.
Building and maintaining trust in public institutions are key tenets of a democratic society. This task is especially important, but also very challenging, when an institution cannot be subject to rigorous public scrutiny because its work must be carried out under the veil of secrecy. This is the case with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which has a responsibility to collect intelligence relating to threats to Canada’s national security.
In setting out the fundamental principles on which CSIS would be based, the Royal Commission that lead to its creation noted:
“In a liberal society, which as a matter of principle wishes to minimize the intrusion of secret state agencies into the private lives of its citizens and into the affairs of its political organizations and private institutions, techniques of investigation that penetrate areas of privacy should be used only when justified by the severity and imminence of the threat to national security.” The task of ensuring that this balance would be met was entrusted to the Security Intelligence Review Committee, or SIRC.
For thirty years, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) has been a core component of a system of checks and balances to keep CSIS accountable to Parliament and to all Canadians. SIRC’s mandate is to help ensure that CSIS respects the fundamental rights and freedoms of Canadians while it investigates threats to national security both domestically and abroad.
In recent months, there has been widespread media reporting on the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance activities. As expected, these allegations have fuelled worldwide public criticism about intelligence activities encroaching on citizens’ privacy. Closer to home, questions about whether our intelligence agencies may have been collecting the private communications of ordinary Canadians also sparked concerns about privacy. Unfortunately, much of this discussion has overlooked the fact that there are dedicated review bodies that work diligently to ensure that Canada’s two largest intelligence agencies carry out their work lawfully and appropriately.
To begin, I would like to give you an overview of my organization, SIRC – who we are, what we do, and how we do it. I hope this summary will provide you with greater perspective on the assurances we provide to Parliament and the Canadian public.
SIRC is an independent, external body, meaning that it is at arms’ length from the Government. SIRC does not report to any Minister, but rather directly to Parliament. SIRC has virtually unlimited power to review CSIS’s performance: with the sole exception of Cabinet confidences, meaning deliberations among Ministers, SIRC has the absolute authority to examine all information in CSIS’s holdings, no matter how classified that information may be. Our Committee is comprised of three to five Members, all Privy Councillors, who serve part-time. It is supported by an Executive Director, as well as a dozen or so full-time research and legal staff.
SIRC is a professional organization that carries out its duties with objectivity and proficiency. It has three principal functions: to conduct reviews, to certify the CSIS Director’s classified annual report to the Minister of Public Safety – which is a fairly new responsibility for us - and to investigate complaints. I would like to take moment to give you a very brief description of each of these activities.
SIRC’s reviews for any given year are designed to yield assessments across a wide range of CSIS activities. To be clear, SIRC has the ability to review any CSIS activity or operation; this means that we review why and how CSIS targets individuals, how it uses and manages human sources, how it executes very intrusive warrant powers authorized by the Federal Court, its exchanges of information with domestic and foreign partners, its operations across Canada and abroad. Given the size of our staff, we must be strategic in its selection of areas to review in order to ensure broad, representative and timely coverage of CSIS activities, operations and programs.
Our second function, the 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 provide an assessment of the legality, reasonableness and necessity of the Service’s operational activities.
Finally, SIRC investigates complaints. 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.
I would like to expand slightly on our review function. As most of you are aware, CSIS derives its mandate and powers from the CSIS Act, which also sets clear limits on the type of activity that may be investigated, the ways that information can be collected, and who may view the information. For example, under s. 12, CSIS shall only collect
“to the extent that is strictly necessary”, intelligence respecting activities that may
“on reasonable grounds” be suspected of constituting threats to the security of Canada. These limits are echoed and further defined in ministerial direction given to CSIS. For example, CSIS must ensure that
“techniques of investigation that penetrate areas of privacy [are] used only when justified by the severity and imminence of the threat to national security.”
These considerations are chief among our concerns when we review an investigation or activity. In carrying out our reviews, we ask questions related to whether CSIS’s activities and information collection was
“proportionate”. To give a concrete example, when reviewing CSIS’s activities vis-à-vis an authorized target of investigation, SIRC will assess, among other things, whether the investigative activities were proportionate to the threat posed by that individual; whether the information collected pertained only to threat-related activity; and whether related exchanges of information were carried out and tracked appropriately.
Our most recent Annual Report contains declassified summaries of the nine reviews we completed in 2012–2013. Many of these reviews had an information-sharing nexus as they examined, for example, CSIS’s information sharing practices with domestic and foreign partners.
I wish to stress that in this information age, SIRC is acutely mindful of the need for CSIS to respect its legislated information collection limits and how it shares that information. SIRC is also now in a position where our legislation, particularly involving information-sharing, may not be as up to date as it could be. I would like to use an example to illustrate this point.
In our most recent Annual Report, 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.
I will end my introductory comments here to allow time for discussion. In closing, I would submit to you that information-sharing is something that is not just an issue within the security, defence and intelligence communities, but between those communities and the public we serve. Transparency, while not easy in this business, is a fundamental aspect of our democracy and should be well balanced with the need for secrecy. In the report of the Royal Commission that ultimately led to CSIS’s creation in the early 1980’s, there is quote from former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson that, although dated, is still very relevant and insightful for us today. Pearson noted the importance that
“the protection of our security does not by its nature or by its conduct undermine those human rights and freedoms to which our democratic institutions are dedicated.” Although the threats to our collective security have changed in nature and scope in the past thirty years, SIRC very much adheres to this viewpoint in carrying out its work.
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