Mark Collins – Under His Thumb? Proposed Canadian Parliamentary Security/Intel Review Committee

The prime minister’s thumb it appears, with a committee much modeled on the British equivalent. No doubt in the hope of reassuring nervous Five Eyes SIGINT allies and, more broadly, those foreign services with which Canada works closely on such things as counter-terrorism and counter-espionage. Many abroad may have serious doubts about the ability of our MPs, especially from the opposition, to hold their tongues.

It is noteworthy that significant intelligence activities of the Canadian Forces, including HUMINT (see “Not Much Noticed: Canadian Forces Intelligence Command [plus HUMINT]“), are excluded from the committee’s purview. Why?

Also noteworthy is that the committee will be a review body, not an active oversight one. Plus the fact that opposition MPs and senators combined could outvote government MPs. Further to this post,

Legislation Coming: Canadian Parliamentary Committee for Intelligence/Security Review (military included? [partially only])

two stories:

1) Security supercommittee to report to prime minister (print headline p. A4 June 17)

A group of nine MPs and senators will receive extraordinary powers to delve into Canada’s national-security secrets, although questions remain about the government’s right to restrict its access to documents or its ability to raise its concerns in public.

As promised in last year’s election, the Liberal government tabled legislation to create a new national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians to provide oversight of all 17 federal agencies [which ones are they?] involved in security issues.

While composed of parliamentarians, the new committee will report to the prime minister, unlike traditional parliamentary committees. As such, the new committee’s annual and special reports will be vetted by the government before they are released to prevent the disclosure of any classified information, which stands to constrain the body’s ability to raise red flags with the public.

The committee will have a “broad mandate,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale insisted at a news conference. The seven MPs and two senators will be able to review “any activity” carried out by national-security agencies and “any matter relating to national security or intelligence,” according to Bill C-22 [more below].

However, the government will be able to constrain certain investigations as ministers will have the right to refuse to provide information that “would be injurious to national security [emphasis added].” The minister would have to offer a rationale for the decision, but the committee would not have the ability to appeal the matter to any court.

The committee will be able to monitor the work of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, but will be prevented from looking at continuing RCMP criminal investigations or delve into “ongoing defence intelligence activities supporting military operations [emphasis added].

Mr. Goodale said the committee’s power will come from its ability to publicly slam the government in its annual or special reports…

Members of the committee will swear an oath of secrecy, which they will have to obey for the rest of their lives. Any breach will open the door to criminal prosecution [how likely? what penalties?]…

The prime minister will make all appointments to the committee, with four of the seven MP slots to be filled with government members [so the three opposition MPs plus the two senators could out-vote the government members–it appears the committee will decide by vote, see Section 19 of the bill; that could cause this government problems as no senators are now members of the Liberal Party caucus, more here]…

2) New spy watchdog will have power to examine ‘any activity, any operation’: Goodale (not quite, see above)

The all-party committee of seven MPs and two Senators, to be chosen by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and supported by a small secretariat, would be sworn to permanent secrecy and handed a broad mandate to probe, mainly ex post facto [emphasis added], any and all national security activities to gauge whether they are effective, efficient and legal. Its primary investigative tool would be a statutory power to access many of the nation’s most guarded secrets.

“They are going to have the ability to look at any issue, any activity, any operation, any document in the government of Canada that relates to security and intelligence matters,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters after the bill’s unveiling…

The committee would make an annual report of findings and recommendations to the prime minister, with a redacted version tabled in Parliament, and fall under the administration of the executive branch, not Parliament…

From the bill itself:

An Act to establish the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts…

Mandate of Committee

Review of national security matters

8 The mandate of the Committee is to review [emphasis added]

(a) the legislative, regulatory, policy, administrative and financial framework for national security and intelligence;

(b) any activity carried out by a department that relates to national security or intelligence, unless the appropriate Minister determines that the review would be injurious to national security; and

(c) any matter relating to national security or intelligence that a minister of the Crown refers to the Committee…


14 The Committee is not entitled to have access to any of the following information:

(a) a confidence of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, as defined in subsection 39(2) of the Canada Evidence Act;

(b) information respecting ongoing defence intelligence activities supporting military operations, including the nature and content of plans in support of those military operations [emphasis added]…

Refusal of information

16 (1) The appropriate Minister for a department may refuse to provide information to which the Committee would, but for this section, otherwise be entitled to have access and that is under the control of that department, but only if he or she is of the opinion that

(a) the information constitutes special operational information, as defined in subsection 8(1) of the Security of Information Act; and

(b) provision of the information would be injurious to national security.


(2) If the appropriate Minister refuses to provide information under subsection (1), he or she must inform the Committee of his or her decision and the reasons for the decision.

Review bodies informed of decision

(3) If the appropriate Minister makes the decision in respect of any of the following information, he or she must provide the decision and reasons to,

(a) in the case of information under the control of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police;

(b) in the case of information under the control of the Communications Security Establishment, the Commissioner of the Communications Security Establishment; and

(c) in the case of information under the control of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Security Intelligence Review Committee…

How much leeway will the prime minister/Privy Council Office (the PM’s bureaucrats, in close touch with the relevant agencies) allow the committee in its public reporting?

One also wonders if the government will follow with legislation to allow the existing review bodies to work with each other (they cannot do so now), and to create such non-parliamentary review for other organizations with security/intelligence responsibilities such as the Canadian Border Services Agency.

And how much time and effort will MPs–as opposed to any senators–put into to doing really substantive and non-sexy work: e.g. related to the effectiveness of the agencies they are reviewing rather than to matters potentially scandalous in one way or another. One is not optimistic based on MPs’ performance over many years on other subjects, particularly defence.

Another thumb:

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


4 thoughts on “Mark Collins – Under His Thumb? Proposed Canadian Parliamentary Security/Intel Review Committee”

  1. Plus how many Canadian MPs will be bothered to take the time to develop some real expertise in the field? Few have any unlike the case in the UK where there is a pool of pretty knowledgeable and serious people in the House and the Lords from which the PM can choose.

    Mark Collins

  2. A couple of more thoughts:

    1) I find it hard to believe our MPs will put away their normal hyper-partisanship the whole time they serve on the committee; heck, they can even be hyper-partisan about genocide:…6313.7104.0.8243.….0…1c.1.64.serp..0.0.0.Tv-BOLw11Ys

    2) Will members of the committee be given access to documents with SIGINT classifications? If so, how will Five Eyes allies react?

    Mark Collins

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