Opening Remarks to the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence
Delivered by Michael Doucet, Executive Director
April 23, 2015
Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. When SIRC was invited to appear last month in regard to Bill C-44, I discussed our work and what changes might be required to assist us in ensuring that this work is as comprehensive as possible. Today, I would like to expand on those themes and discuss what Bill C-51 would mean for SIRC and for national security accountability in Canada.
Let me begin by clarifying how SIRC operates as there has been quite a bit of discussion around the Committee being
“part-time”. The Committee meets several times per year; during those meetings, it establishes priorities and reviews the work undertaken by staff. Committee Members are also assigned to complaints cases and preside over the attendant hearings.
The Committee is supported by a full-time staff, including myself as Executive Director. I am responsible for the day-to-day operations of SIRC and its 18 full-time employees, including nine research staff and three lawyers. SIRC's staff is composed of individuals from different academic and professional backgrounds, with many approaching, or eclipsing, 10 years of experience in reviewing the most sensitive national security issues.
A typical review requires hundreds of staff hours and is completed within four to five months. SIRC staff review and analyse thousands of pages of hardcopy and electronic documentation; conduct briefings and interviews with relevant CSIS staff; and often undertake a field visit when a review involves a regional office or a foreign post. A classified report on the results of a review is presented to the Committee when it meets. SIRC also conducts investigations into complaints made against CSIS and denials of security clearances.
Therefore, while the Committee is made up of part-time Members, SIRC’s work is very much carried out on a full-time basis. With that clarified, I would like to move on to a discussion of the impact of Bill C-51 on SIRC and accountability.
Bill C-51 will significantly impact the effectiveness of not only SIRC, but of Canada’s national security accountability overall. With the passage of Bill C-51, SIRC will stand at a critical threshold whereby ability (and capacity) to effectively fulfill its review function could be in jeopardy. Having said this, SIRC is obviously in the process of assessing the impact of the announcement made in Tuesday’s federal government budget, namely a significant increase to SIRC’s budget to enhance its review of CSIS.
First, the legislative amendments contained in Bill C-51 aimed at giving CSIS threat diminishment powers, and SIRC’s obligation to annually
“review at least one aspect of the Service’s performance in taking measures to reduce threats to the security of Canada”, will require a significant resource commitment from SIRC in both its research and investigation of complaints functions.
The most significant impact that we can foresee will be on research, which will be responsible for leading the review of CSIS’s threat reduction activities. Threat reduction activities are by their very nature potentially controversial and/or higher-risk, meaning that SIRC will have to pay very close attention to them in coming years. The number of complaints that these activities may generate is difficult to predict, but we must also be prepared for an increase in complaints given that SIRC investigates complaints with respect to
“any act or thing done by the Service”.
SIRC will need to commit the resources required to undertake focussed, dedicated and permanent mandatory review in order to provide proper comprehensive and systematic review of these new threat reduction activities. SIRC will therefore face difficult decisions in coming years as we struggle to cover a larger CSIS waterfront.
Second, in our 2010–2011 annual report, SIRC commented that
“the existing review mechanisms—including SIRC—are neither configured nor equipped to examine fully Canada’s increasingly integrated national security activities.” This statement became the basis for the
“follow the thread” discussion, namely the need for SIRC to be able to address and assess national security matters that involve CSIS but go beyond the strict confines of that agency.
This is not a new discussion, but with Bill C-51, its importance is greater than ever. In 2006, the O’Connor Commission criticized Canada’s national security accountability structure and made detailed recommendations. Justice O’Connor observed correctly that the national security activities of many federal entities had become largely intertwined in the aftermath of 9/11, but review agencies remained silo-ed.
SIRC’s ability to
“follow the thread” and conduct joint reviews is absolutely vital to accountability. With Bill C-51 comes increased information sharing for the purposes of national security. As a result, over 100 Government of Canada Institutions can share information in respect of activities that undermine the security of Canada without any clear standard for disclosure.
Seventeen departments with a national security nexus, including CSIS, are listed in the legislation as the recipients of this information sharing. Of those 17 departments, only 3 are subject to a dedicated review body – and those review bodies are constrained from following the information of the agency they examine into other Government of Canada Institutions and from performing joint reviews. These legislative constraints on SIRC will make it increasingly difficult for us to provide robust assurances on CSIS’s activities to Parliament and Canadians.
I would like to leave you with the conclusions from the 2009 Report of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security on their Review of the Findings and Recommendations Arising from the O'Connor Inquiry:
“Without an integrated structure for the full review of national security issues, the government cannot effectively and efficiently protect Canadians from violations of their civil rights and freedoms.”
SIRC looks forward to being part of such an integrated structure – whatever form it may take. Thank you. I welcome any questions you may have.
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