After Clement scandal, questions mount about vetting of top secret committee

In the wake of the Tony Clement sexting and extortion scandal, questions are being asked about just how stringent the vetting process is for members of a top secret committee of parliamentarians that is reviewing the most sensitive work of the nation's security agencies.
Conservative MP Tony Clement stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Tony Clement's admission that he told Ontario police over the summer that someone was trying to buy "intimate and personal information" he shared online raises questions about the effectiveness of the vetting process for a top-secret parliamentary committee tasked with reviewing the most sensitive work of the nation's security agencies.

MP Clement was selected for this highly secretive committee — which reviews investigative work by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, among others — in part because of his seniority and his experience as a senior cabinet minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Clement and the other 10 members of the multi-partisan group of MPs and senators secured top secret security clearance from the agencies they were tapped to monitor before their appointment. The committee was created by the current Liberal government in response to persistent demands for greater civilian oversight of intelligence work in this country.

While its work is carefully guarded, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale promised the committee would have "extraordinary access to scrutinize all of the security and intelligence operations" across the government of Canada.

Blackmail targets

After receiving the clearance required to delve into any matter related to national security, the members also received a comprehensive security briefing from the Privy Council Office and other security agencies.

That briefing included warnings that members of this committee — which reviews information highly coveted by the nation's enemies and other foreign actors — could be the targets of blackmail or extortion attempts, a spokesperson for the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) said in a statement to CBC News.

"That briefing included a detailed presentation on the ways in which committee members may be targeted due to their presence on the committee," said Rennie Marcoux, executive director of the committee.

"Our legislation and regulation clearly set out our security and confidentiality requirements. We regularly review these obligations given how important this is to our credibility and relations with the security and intelligence community."

Despite this commitment to "regularly review" security and confidentiality requirements, Clement continued to sit as a member of this committee months after telling the Ontario Provincial Police that an "inappropriate exchange" with a woman online may have left him exposed.

Steve Waterhouse, a former information systems security officer at the Department of National Defence and now an expert in cybersecurity, said he believes the vetting process for this committee needs to be even more rigorous than it already is to guard against someone vulnerable to blackmail being made privy to state secrets.

Waterhouse said it isn't enough to simply vet someone before they become a member of the committee.

If a police report is filed that involves a member of the committee — as it was with Clement — that information should be made available to the committee's leadership, he said.

"Members serving on these committees should be continuously reviewed and the government should monitor their online activities. They should sign a waiver saying, 'Yes, my private life isn't private anymore. The government has an overview of whatever I'm talking about or exchanging online,'" Waterhouse said.

"When national security and state security is involved, that should supercede the privacy of an individual with privileged information."

Marcoux said the committee "pays a lot of attention to its security obligations. We discuss them on an ongoing basis."

'Personal difficulty and weakness'

In a letter to constituents published Thursday, Clement said that, during a period of "personal difficulty and weakness," he engaged in a sexually explicit exchange with a woman online in the summer of 2018.

"One inappropriate exchange led to a woman being offered money by an anonymous social media account in exchange for the disclosure of intimate and personal information," Clement said.

He reported this incident to the Ontario Provincial Police. The force confirmed to CBC News that Clement did come to the OPP with a complaint in the summer and an investigation was launched. The OPP would not say if the investigation is ongoing.

CBC News asked multiple government department officials — including people at the Privy Council Office (the arm of the bureaucracy that serves the prime minister, cabinet and the work of this committee) and the NSICOP national director — when they became aware of Clement's complaint to the OPP regarding the extortion attempt. They all refused to state when exactly they learned of the OPP's involvement.

Clement only resigned from his position on the committee this week, after he went public with the details of another act of infidelity that led to an extortion attempt for money.

'Foreign actors'

In that case, Clement reported the incident to the RCMP, sent a statement to the press and resigned from all of his parliamentary positions.

Clement has said he believes this second, most recent incident was carried out by "foreign actors." The RCMP has launched an investigation.

There is no indication that Clement was asked for or disclosed any sensitive information. In his letter to constituents, Clement said: "I want to be clear that at no time have these personal lapses impacted or involved my day to day work as a Member of Parliament on behalf of our communities."

Waterhouse said Clement would now be the subject of an extensive "impact assessment" by the police to make sure Clement did not disclose anything of value to the extortionists.

Waterhouse said it's entirely conceivable that a country like Russia would pursue Clement because of his prominent position on the committee — and also because of his vocal defence of Ukraine in the face of Russian incursions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

He said foreign operatives often seek out officials like Clement: a politician easily accessible online with a robust social media presence. Clement follows tens of thousands of people on Twitter and Instagram.

"He had access to privileged information. It makes him a very interesting subject," Waterhouse said. "There's a delicate balance between being an easily accessible politician and accepting everyone who wants to follow you."


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.