Security and intelligence problems keep popping onto the national agenda, even though very few of us want to see them there. Over the past several years, Ottawa has set up three special public inquiries into national security issues, and at least two other issues have raised calls for more inquiries.
Continually calling new inquiries is not good public policy. Each such inquiry is a one-off, expensive and time-consuming, and the expertise assembled for each inquiry is dispersed at the end, while the next inquiry has to start from square one.
Ongoing accountability mechanisms form a poor patchwork, covering only parts of the process, able to report only on their own narrow institutional stovepipes. The report on Omar Khadr, for example, looks only at CSIS, even though the Canadian policy on Khadr’s situation was an all-government position, especially involving foreign affairs, whose intelligence activities are not subject to any ongoing scrutiny.
Over the years, each move to extend accountability has simply extended the patchwork, with highly uneven results. CSIS receives relatively good scrutiny. The RCMP, on the other hand, is inadequately scrutinized for both its national security and its law enforcement activities, as the present and past chairs of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission have insisted publicly. Yet as a result of the Maher Arar report, the commissioner of the RCMP was forced to resign.
It is time to institute an effective ongoing accountability process for the entire security and intelligence community, one that will remain in place ready to investigate and report on any and all issues that come up, without having to call for special, one-off inquiries.
The government has promised to do just this, but action has not followed. Justice Dennis O’Connor made wide-ranging policy recommendations in the Arar report, yet almost three years have passed with no visible response.
O’Connor recognized that the practice of security intelligence in the age of global terrorism has changed. Where stand-alone agencies once conducted their own operations on their own turf, today integration is the key: Integration across agencies, and across government jurisdictions.
O’Connor pointed out that if accountability is to be effective, it too must be integrated. He proposed a set of institutional and legal mechanisms to achieve this. These should be at the heart of any reform package.
Better accountability in national security is in everyone’s interest. This ball is now in the government’s court.