Analysis

Will new security committee look into Atwal affair? So far, it's a secret

If the committee is interested in figuring out how a man convicted of attempted murder ended up at the same event in Mumbai as the prime minister, it's not saying. And some argue the Atwal affair is not the sort of thing the new committee should be concerning itself with anyway.

'I'm allergic to the idea,' says analyst

Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale suggested the new national security committee of parliamentarians might be the best venue to explore the Atwal affair. Not everyone agrees. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Pressed last week to explain a Trudeau government official's theory that elements within the Indian government were involved in the Jaspal Atwal affair, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale had a suggestion: bring it up before the new national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians.

But if that committee — established last year with a mandate to review sensitive intelligence matters — is interested in figuring out how a man convicted of attempted murder ended up at the same event in Mumbai as the prime minister, it's not saying. Not yet, at least.

In the meantime, one expert is arguing the Atwal affair is not the sort of thing the new committee should be concerning itself with anyway.

Independent institutions such as the Security Intelligence Review Committee already exist to look into the actions of Canada's national security agencies. The national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians was created to provide MPs and senators with a venue to more fully review security issues. Canada's security partners already had extended such review power to legislators in their own countries.

The committee, made up of eight MPs and three senators, is chaired by Liberal MP David McGuinty. Like a similar body in the United Kingdom, the committee is not a committee of Parliament but a separate institution with specific security requirements and access to classified information 

It will report publicly on its activities, but the government will be able to redact from those reports any information it believes could harm national security or international relations (in the U.K., such redactions are publicly noted with asterisks).

The new committee keeps quiet

What this committee's work will amount to has been an open question since the notion of such a body came to the fore a few years ago. Last week was the first time the nascent institution was prominently cited as a possible answer to a specific question.

"As you can see from the questioning in the [public safety] committee, it very quickly turns to issues that are classified. And there is a process by which parliamentarians can examine classified issues," Goodale said last week, after declining to discuss the Atwal situation during a meeting of the House of Commons public safety committee.

Liberal MPs on that committee recently defeated a Conservative motion calling on the prime minister's national security adviser, Daniel Jean — the man identified by Conservatives as the source of the theory about the Indian government engineering the Atwal invitation — to testify. Conservative officials did not immediately respond on Tuesday to a question about whether they want to see the issue studied by the new committee.

For now, the national security committee does not seem keen to talk about what it may or may not be up to.

"Given the sensitive nature of the committee's work and its access to highly classified information, the annual report will be the main vehicle for communicating any of our reviews and findings," said Rennie Marcoux, executive director of the secretariat that serves the committee.

That seems to be a fairly comprehensive policy. Marcoux won't even comment on how many times the committee has met so far.

Ralph Goodale runs Randeep Sarai with reporters in tow 2:22

Can MPs avoid politicizing intelligence?

But discretion could be the better part of valour for the committee — not only in how it communicates with the public, but also in what it chooses to examine.

"I'm allergic to the idea that [Atwal] is a matter that should be sent down for the committee," said Craig Forcese, a professor at the University of Ottawa and one of the leading voices on national security in Canada. "Especially given that that's a new agency, without its culture established and its modus operandi well entrenched."

Justin Trudeau's Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Amarjeet Sohi pictured with Jaspal Atwal in Mumbai Feb. 20. (Contributor's name withheld by request)

Forcese said he wonders whether MPs are interested in the Atwal affair because it is a serious issue of national security — or because it's still a hot political topic. He suggests it's the latter.

Others may differ on that point. But the risk, Forcese said, is that the committee might become a political instrument — a place to bury controversies, to allow MPs and senators to pursue matters of interest to their parties, or to politicize intelligence for partisan gain.

He pointed to the partisan wrangle in the U.S. over congressional probes of Russian interference in the 2016 election — and the recent imbroglio over a memo drafted by a Republican congressman on the topic — as examples of what Canada should strive to avoid.

Instead, he said, the committee should be looking at "the systemic, high-level impediments to doing national security well in Canada."

"That, it seems to me, is the only justification for the committee and the only justification for giving them access to classified information," Forcese said.

That kind of committee work could cover questions about foreign interference, information-sharing between CSIS and the RCMP and the no-fly list. As an example of a quality intelligence committee report, Forcese pointed to the last annual report of the U.K. Parliament's intelligence and security committee, which looked closely at how the British government was handling "hostile state activity."

People have been calling on parliamentarians to put aside partisan bias to grapple with serious policy questions for as long as we've had a Parliament. But given the seriousness of the issues at hand, there's something to be said for making this committee a rare bastion of relatively detached inquiry.

"They can't get dragged down by every bauble that ends up in the headlines," Forcese said, "because that will diminish their capacity to work on these complex, structural issues."

Atwal has called a press conference for Thursday in Vancouver with his lawyer and has promised to take questions.

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