Security and intelligence committee can prevent another Omar Khadr case: David McGuinty
'My obligation is to turn from being a critic to helping the committee,' says Conservative Tony Clement
David McGuinty says if the 11-member national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians does its job, 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 CBC Radio's 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 settlements but in the conduct of governments over the last several decades."
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 (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., U.K., 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 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."
Good place to start
McGuinty has already met with some of the national security agencies and he says, far from being resistant to the committee's role, the officials he's spoken to are embracing it.
"Most actors in the security community… have never had an opportunity to come into a room of legislators, from both houses, openly and unfettered, and share the information they have. And they've wanted to do so for a long time."
McGuinty expects the committee plans to meet several times before the Christmas break. But it still needs to hire senior staff to support its work, and to find a secure room in which to conduct hearings and review classified material.
He expects the committee will need to meet twice a week when it's fully operational, for five to six hours at a time. Those meetings will be held throughout the year, not just when Parliament is sitting.
For now, McGuinty says the committee will "begin at the beginning," a phrase he repeats several times in the interview when asked if the mandate is too restrictive, and whether changes will ultimately have to be made.
But he believes the committee's role will likely evolve with time, and as its members get up to speed. That's been the experience in other countries, he says, with a longer history with this kind of legislative oversight of security and intelligence agencies.