OTTAWA — In the next few weeks, a group of 11 MPs and senators who have received top security clearances and signed lifetime confidentiality oaths will start getting briefings on the country’s most sensitive national security issues.
The brand new National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, which had its membership announced Monday, marks the first time Canada has allowed parliamentarians outside of cabinet to review its national security agencies. It also finally catches Canada up to its “Five Eyes” intelligence allies (the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand), who already have such bodies.
The committee, chaired by Liberal MP David McGuinty, will have Liberal MPs Emmanuel Dubourg, Hedy Fry, Gudie Hutchings and Brenda Shanahan; Conservative MPs Gord Brown and Tony Clement; NDP MP Murray Rankin; and senators Percy Downe, Frances Lankin and Vernon White.
In an interview, McGuinty said the group will likely start working by the Christmas break, but it still needs to hire its executive and research staff, and arrange for secure facilities to meet in and read through classified documents.
“Everybody is ready to go, very keen to serve,” he said.
“But all of us are going to need some very significant, comprehensive, detailed briefings about the state of national security and intelligence in Canada today, in the Five Eyes today, and globally.”
It remains to be seen how much of the committee’s touchy work will become public, as the Prime Minister’s Office retains the right to redact reports. The legislation also allows ministers to deny access to some operational information. The committee’s only recourse would be to go public with its complaint.
But speaking to the National Post, incoming members said they’re keen to bring greater transparency to an area of government that’s largely hidden from public view.
“We are the parliamentarians, we’re supposed to be the eyes and ears for the people of Canada, and it was an embarrassment for Canadians to not have had a committee like ours for so many years,” said Rankin, who has previous experience as legal counsel in national security matters.
Fry, one of the longest-serving MPs in the House, having first been elected in 1993, said protecting civil liberties will be top of mind.
“The number one priority of this committee is to ensure that balance…that the civil liberties of Canadians are safeguarded while their safety and security are ensured,” she said. “But it means that we will have to be bold, that we will have to take on, in some ways, the established institutions and departments.”
Lankin, who before becoming a senator had served on the agency that oversees the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said she thinks the committee will have a “particular citizen focus” to its work.
“You will see a group of people that will be very concentrated on looking at how the activities of these organizations fulfill their mandate, but do so respecting the rights of Canadians…I think there will be lots to do, and I think it will be a pretty energetic group by the looks of it.”
One of the committee’s biggest selling points is the breadth of its mandate, being able to take a “bird’s-eye view” and inquire into the work of every agency that does national security work, from the RCMP to the military to the immigration authorities.
“Our report could be redacted, but the thrust of it will certainly become public,” Rankin said. “Over time, I’m sure we’ll have an impact. You can’t ignore 11 individuals from the Senate and the House who actually know what they’re talking about because they’ve been given access to classified information.”
The committee will file an annual report, but can also file special reports on a matter deemed particularly important. Whether they announce ahead of time what they’re studying is one of many questions they have yet to determine, McGuinty said.
“There is a practice that has to emerge here, but first we’ve got to get together and begin,” he said.
McGuinty said he’s confident the committee can operate outside partisan lines, and will thoughtfully take on a role that Canada’s government has never seen before.
“We’re the first group ever of Canadian legislators cleared to a top secret level to be able to hear the testimony and read the evidence,” he said.
“We’re not here on behalf of the executive of the government of Canada, we’re here as legislators who have a responsibility to continue to hold the government to account.”