Recent revelations that Tory MP Bob Dechert sent flirtatious emails to a reporter with China’s state-run news agency are raising questions about what exactly is involved in a security check of elected officials.

Dechert, the parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister, received fresh security checks in March 2011, according to the Canadian Press. That was just months after he sent emails to a Toronto-based journalist with Xinhua News Agency, widely viewed as linked to China's intelligence services.

Privy Council Office spokesman Raymond Rivet says the PCO arranges for security background checks to be performed on only those elected officials who are being considered for appointment as ministers or parliamentary secretaries.  

When asked what the screening process entails, he would say only that it "involves records checks with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, a check with the Canada Revenue Agency regarding tax compliance, and a check with the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy regarding bankruptcy and insolvency."

As a public office holder, Dechert would also have received a briefing from the PCO about how to safeguard sensitive information — whether in paper or electronic format, or during discussions — and what to do in case of an actual or suspected security breach or compromise.

si-220-top-secret-istock

Tory MP Bob Dechert received fresh security checks in March 2011. iStock photo

After a 2008 security breach involving former foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier, Prime Minister Stephen Harper ordered security clearances every two years for elected officials. Bernier forgot a secret briefing binder at the home of his girlfriend – a woman with past links to Quebec biker gangs.

While security checks are more frequent, it’s not clear exactly what information is being checked, says David Harris, a former intelligence operative with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. CSIS provides security assessments on demand for all federal government departments and agencies, with the exception of the RCMP, which conducts security investigations for its own personnel.

CSIS’s website details the security screening program for government employees, but it does not specifically mention elected officials. Repeated phone calls to CSIS were not returned.

"My understanding is that the criteria [for government employee security checks] would apply to elected officials insofar as the government would allow it to apply," said Harris, who now works for INSIGNIS Strategic Research Inc., a counter-intelligence consulting company in Ottawa.

Loyalty, reliability key for staff and contractors

In general, the federal government requires that employees and contractors who have access to sensitive information or assets be assessed for two things — their loyalty and their reliability.  All security checks include verification of personal data, education, professional background and qualifications, employment history and references.

In determining a person’s loyalty, government officials are looking for evidence that they are engaged in, or may engage in, "activities that constitute a threat to the security of Canada," according to the CSIS website.

A CSIS security check also assesses reliability. In this case, officials are looking for evidence "that because of personal beliefs, features of character, association with persons or groups considered a security threat, or family or other close ties to persons living in certain countries, the individual may be induced to act in a way that constitutes a threat to the security of Canada, or may disclose classified material."

A government employee’s loyalty and reliability are assessed according to three levels of security clearance, depending on how much access they need to classified information.

Level one and two security clearances involve checking CSIS databanks, and according to CSIS, most often results in a recommendation for clearance.

A level three clearance, on the other hand, requires a full field investigation. That means CSIS officials will interview friends, neighbours and employers. They will also consult with local police and may interview the person applying for level three security clearance.