Wednesday November 08, 2017

Midweek podcast: security and intelligence committee finally gets to work

Libreal MP David McGuinty asks a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Monday, June 8, 2015.

Libreal MP David McGuinty asks a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Monday, June 8, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Listen to Full Episode 30:03

David McGuinty says if the 11-member national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians does its job right, no other Canadians will face the same kind of fate as Maher Arar and Omar Khadr.

"That's a likely outcome if we do our work the right way. If we are properly resourced. If we can pick themes and studies that cut to the chase here in finding out where these weaknesses might lie."

And the Liberal MP, who's chairing the new parliamentary committee overseeing the work of Canada's national security agencies, believes its members won't hesitate to call out efforts to unduly limit their access to classified material.

"If we feel we're having some difficulty, or if we feel it's unfair in what may or may not be released to us in terms of information, the committee can go to a microphone, stand up at a pulpit and tell the Canadian people just that," David McGuinty told The House.

Arar, Khadr and three other Canadian men, received millions of dollars in compensation from the Canadian government because security officials in this country played a role in their detention and abuse overseas.

"We've learned a lot as a country in the last several years," McGuinty says, "not just through these settlement but in the conduct of governments over the last several decades even."

The committee

The members of the committee were announced just this week by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The 11-members — eight MPs and three senators — come from all three major parties. All but three of the MPs have previous experience in cabinet. One of the senators is a former police chief, another is a former member of the agency that reviews the operations of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service or CSIS.

McGuinty said the committee's first job is to build trust: with Canadians, and the approximately 20 agencies whose activities they are mandated to oversee.

"I can't prejudge the journey we will undertake as a team, but there is a possibility, in due course of the committee once it's actually been in place for some time, the committee might want to make recommendations to change its very mandate."

Canada had been alone among the so-called Five Eyes countries — the U.S., UK, Australia and New Zealand — to not have some form of oversight by elected officials.

This committee fulfills a pledge made by the Liberals in the last campaign to address that.

But the mandate of the committee has been criticized on several fronts.

First: its annual reports will go directly to the prime minister before being made public, raising concerns information might be removed.

Second: the legislation gives any cabinet minister the right to block an inquiry by the committee if he or she deems it a risk to national security.

The Conservative's public safety critic Tony Clement raised that exact concern during debate. Now the former cabinet minister is a member of the committee.

"It's now the law and my obligation is to turn from being a critic to helping the committee do the best it can do," Clement told CBC News.

"I want to make sure that it works well for Canadians. It's an important committee to make sure security issues and issues of Canadians rights and freedoms are properly balanced.