Brian Stewart: Why are we eliminating the CSIS watchers?

When a national spy agency was set up in the 1980s, one of the safeguards was to have an independent watchdog reporting directly to the minister of the day. But for reasons that defy logic, Brian Stewart writes, this job is now being eliminated.

For over 30 years our domestic intelligence agency has been haunted by the memory of a massive scandal that revealed how Canada's government had lost control of its own spies.

In the late 1970s, the problems that beset the RCMP Security Service — illegal break-ins and wiretaps, intimidation of suspects, damage to property, political interference and lying to cabinet ministers — were seen as Canada's Watergate.

They shook the faith of Canadians in our security service and in the protection of civil rights, and contributed to the fall of the Trudeau government in 1979.

Today we should reflect on just how bad this was, for it reminds us of the critical need for government to ensure that our spies never run amok again.

In the early 1980s, after a damning report by the McDonald Commission into the RCMP, Parliament took two critical "never again" intelligence reforms.

First, the national police were stripped of the responsibility for domestic security and a civilian Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was created with firm orders to obey the law.

Second, an independent inspector general for CSIS was established, with enough clout to monitor secret operations and so ensure that cabinet does not get blindsided again by unlawful intelligence gathering.

The inspector general has unique access to inspect CSIS operations so that — let's be absolutely clear here — he or she can protect the federal government from any possible misadventures.

This has been so sensible a safeguard for government, for our democracy and, ultimately, for CSIS itself that it is hard to believe Ottawa ever did without such a watchdog. So why does it want to do that now?

Totally baffling

Enter our often surprising Minister for Public Safety Vic Toews, the person the IG reports directly to.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is scrapping the inspector general for CSIS, saving $1 million. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Toews recently decided that Canada has no further need of an independent inspector general and is scrapping the tiny office to save a mere $1 million — an amount so small it lay unnoticed for the longest time inside the government's massive 420-pages budget implementation bill.

It is a move that has totally baffled those who follow these things closely.

"The government has been entrusted with a valuable tool to ensure the integrity of its intelligence agency, and it is throwing that tool away for reasons no one can understand," wrote Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, who has a unique perspective. (He was a top aide to Pierre Trudeau when the RCMP Security Service was found to be out of control, and has long been an advocate for greater accountability.)

Adds University of Toronto's Wesley Wark, one of Canada's leading security experts: "The inspector general's office was meant to resolve a dilemma for all cabinet ministers charged with responsibility for CSIS — that dilemma being that they could neither afford to be too involved in the operational activities, nor kept too much in the dark."

Indeed, when you consider that only two years ago Toews himself was extolling the inspector general's vital function — "that ensures that CSIS is operating within the law and complying with current policies" — you have to wonder if this move is only about saving money.

Toothless tiger

The first thing to consider here is that CSIS has grown substantially, by 50 per cent since 2001, and today has about 3,100 employees and spends almost $350 million a year.

Yet now, to save just $1 million, the government is erasing its most critical oversight mechanism.

Toews argues that the IG office is not being eliminated per se, it is merely being folded into another body that also watches CSIS — the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), which reports to Parliament, not the minister.

The problem here, though, as everyone in Ottawa knows, is that SIRC, to be blunt, has become about as toothless an agency watchdog as you can find.

It is composed of civilian appointees, often very intelligent people, but with nothing like the oversight powers or professional expertise of the IG's office and its eight staff.

These are critical considerations when dealing with the closed-off world of intelligence. You have to know where the files are and what questions to ask.

SIRC's job has mainly been to answer civilian complaints, and its annual reports to Parliament rarely cause a ripple of interest.

Perhaps the surest indication of how little the government cares about SIRC is that its last chairman, Arthur Porter, resigned last November under a cloud after media stories about his overseas business interests, yet Prime Minister Stephen Harper still hasn't bothered to appoint a successor.

Afraid of criticism?

Shoving the hollow remains of the inspector general's office into SIRC will effectively end its relevant existence. It also means that another independent voice of warning and periodic criticism in Ottawa will have been snuffed out by a government that does not appear to take institutional criticism kindly.

Former inspector general for CSIS, Eva Plunkett, says the country's spy service continues to flout government policy. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Paul Kennedy, the former head of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission who was dumped by the government in 2009, says this is a trend we should all be familiar with by now.

This latest move is particularly concerning to some spy-watchers because the former inspector general, Eva Plunkett, who retired in December, raised some disturbing concerns about CSIS in her frank annual reports.

Most alarmingly, she warned in her final 2012 report of the "reoccurring and high rate of non-compliance with policy, and the ever increasing rate of errors in what is a relatively small review sample" — something, she said, that "should be a serious concern of the service."

We don't know exactly what those errors were — but they apparently showed up in CSIS's own reports about its operations.

Much of Plunkett's reporting to the minister remains secret, but Canadian Press obtained sections of one report that observed "at least 19 instances of CSIS failure to comply with its own policies."

One would think that such troubling conclusions from an experienced official like Plunkett, a civil servant with almost 30 years experience in this field, would unnerve a government enough that it would want an even tougher, expanded inspector general's office. Instead, it seems simply to want to eliminate the bearer of bad tidings.

I'm not sure that any of us who follow these things have a sense of what really might be behind this move.

Perhaps the government thinks CSIS needs a freer hand without nagging criticism from savvy overseers? Or maybe it is a case of ministers preferring not to be too well-informed, and thus responsible, if secret things start to go wrong.

I'll just add, as someone who was heavily involved covering the original RCMP scandals all those years ago, that I sure hope it's not the latter. That's how that whole mess came about.