Liberals call for parliamentary oversight of CSIS, CSEC

Not satisfied with Monday evening's testimony by Canada's security chiefs before a Senate committee, the Liberals introduced a motion Tuesday morning in the House of Commons calling for parliamentary oversight of all national security agencies. It was defeated Tuesday evening.

Canada the only country in "Five Eyes" intelligence network without proactive government oversight

Michel Columbe, left, head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and John Forster, right, chief of the Communications Security Establishment Canada prepare for their appearance before the Senate's national security and defence committee in Ottawa, Monday. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Not satisfied with Monday evening's testimony by Canada's security chiefs before a Senate committee, the Liberals  introduced a motion Tuesday morning in the House of Commons calling for parliamentary oversight of all national security agencies.

Liberal MP Wayne Easter's motion is two-fold: that the House acknowledges and express concern over reports that CSEC has been actively and illegally monitoring Canadians, and it calls for MPs to pass Bill C-551, which would establish a parliamentary committee that would oversee all national security activities.

The House voted 146 to 130 against the motion Tuesday evening.

Bill C-551 was introduced last fall, and Easter noted that it stemmed from a 2004 report from an all-party committee of parliamentarians, of which both Easter and Justice Minister Peter MacKay was a part.

Easter, who is the Liberal Party's public safety critic, said Canada is the only country in the western world's intelligence network — otherwise known as the Five Eyes alliance, which includes the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand — that "does not have oversight by parliamentarians in a proactive way."

It would be an opportunity to ensure that CSIS and CSEC are operating within the confines of the law "the way they should be," Easter said. 

"It's time parliamentarians accept the responsibility."

In response, Conservative MP James Bezan maintained the status quo and said that last night's Senate committee meeting was an example of parliamentary oversight and noted the ability of the committee to pull in three of the most powerful men in Ottawa to testify. 

Bezan, parliamentary secretary to the defence minister, also brought up the CSEC commissioner who oversees the activities of the cybersecurity agency. Those chosen to hold the position of Communications Security Establishment commissioner have been judges, who operate independently of the agency and government.

Bezan said that the commissioner has the authority to look at CSEC's activities and, last year, found that the agency was acting within the law in every single case. He repeated the same point, that "CSEC is prohibited from targeting the information of Canadians in Canada."

Opposition members dissatisfied

Easter said it was necessary to keep the country's spy agencies reeled in, especially CSEC.

"We're faced with an agency with enormous powers to intrude on the lives of all Canadians and those visiting the country," he said.

He said the testimony given last night by CSIS director Michel Coulombe, CSEC chief John Forster and the prime minister's national security adviser Stephen Rigby, came from three powerful figures but citizens are unaware of who can affect what happens in their daily lives.

"Those faces are not known by Canadians," he said.

Easter was also not satisfied with the remarks of the security chiefs when it came to the collection of metadata.

Easter quoted Rigby's line, "It is data about data."

That leaves the impression that there's not much to be worried about, Easter said. 

NDP defence critic Jack Harris also joined in agreement, bringing up CSEC chief Forster's remarks regarding the agency's monitoring of travellers through airport Wi-Fi, a story CBC News broke last week.

Harris said he found it interesting that Forster said it was "just a part of our normal global collection."

Harris asked the government side if they find that disturbing and something that Canadians should know is happening. 

Easter evoked a more ominous sentiment.

"Maybe Big Brother is just sitting to the right of the Speaker," he said. "And you know, that's worrisome."