Philippe Lagassé : Enough with the excuses about Parliament and national security
The scandal over Chinese interference has opened a window of opportunity to bring Canada in line with our allies on the sharing of secret information with parliament. Let's not let it close.
By: Philippe Lagassé
Institutions are tough to change, Canadian institutions especially. But change is possible. Gradual change can happen when we reinterpret existing rules or add new ones on top of old ones that are deeply entrenched. In other cases, a crisis happens that leads to rapid and significant change. These crises either destroy old ways of doing things, or they open a window of opportunity to shake things up. Revelations of Chinese interference in Canadian elections, and David Johnston’s first report on the matter, have opened one of these windows when it comes to Parliament and classified information.
Two sets of Canadian parliamentarians have access to classified information: Privy Councillors (though usually only those currently serving as ministers of the Crown), and those who sit on the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP). In both cases, they have access to classified information in an executive capacity, not their parliamentary capacity. Put differently, they have access to this information by virtue of an executive office they hold in addition to their parliamentary one. Parliament doesn’t have a body that has access to classified information, nor do parliamentarians have access to that information unless they hold an executive office.
Keeping classified information squarely within the executive, or in limited cases within the judiciary, reflects deep-seated Canadian pathologies. As our pathetic Access to Information system highlights, the Canadian government over-classifies things or deems too many of them subject to cabinet confidence. Rather than having a culture of transparency, we have a culture of secrecy. This secrecy culture exists for a number of reasons. Public servants don’t want their ministers to be embarrassed. Information is power within the bureaucracy and giving it out easily diminishes its value. Risk aversion is rewarded and admitting failure is frowned upon. We can’t disclose anything that might rub an ally the wrong way. The list goes on.
Above all, though, Canadian government encourages the strange notion that our secrets are super-super-secret. What do I mean by that? When you look at our allies, Canadian is an outlier in terms of what we disclose and to whom we disclose it. Canadian officials have convinced themselves that they are applying a well-established set of norms around classified and sensitive information, when in fact we’re an outlier. This is particularly notable with it comes to sharing national security information with Parliament.
In the United Kingdom, there’s a statutory committee of Parliament that has access to classified information, called the Intelligence and Security Committee. Since the United Kingdom’s Public Accounts Committee is also expected to oversee all the government’s spending, the chair of that committee has had access to classified information as well to review secret agency budgets. Australia has a similar committee, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Security and Intelligence. This is a very active and important body. It allows Australia to regularly update its national security legislation to meet new threats and to ensure that the powers conferred on the executive are not abused. New Zealand has a parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, too. The Kiwi committee is a bit of an odd duck, since it’s chaired by the prime minister and has the leader of the official opposition as a member. Given that New Zealand is probably one of the most zealous countries when it comes to government transparency, though, it isn’t too surprising. They release stuff that would lead the Privy Council Office to have a collective head explosion if we did the same.
Okay, but maybe the other Westminster countries are weirdos. What about our other allies? The United States Congress has several committees with access to classified information. They also clear congressional staffers so that members are properly assisted when overseeing the executive. France has the Delegation parlementaire au reseignement that oversees and reports on the French intelligence community. Belgium has committees that review classified information related to intelligence, international military operations, and military procurements. Germany’s parliament oversees the intelligence services and military with access to classified information as well.
So, what’s Canada’s excuse? Well, you see, our parliamentarians can’t be trusted. Okay, Privy Councillors and members of NSICOP can be trusted, but not the rest of the rabble. They’d leak all sorts of information, you fool! The intelligence agencies wouldn’t trust them and our allies would be really cross. You mean the same intelligence agencies that are dealing with an active leaker right now and the same allies who cope with their own leaks on a regular basis? Quiet, you.
The Chinese interference crisis offers Canada an opportunity to finally get over our fear of parliamentarians having access to classified information. I don’t mean every parliamentarian, nor I am suggesting that we have no safeguards or procedures. We can establish a statutory committee of Parliament with protections and processes that are necessary to protect secret and sensitive information. NSICOP is supposed to be reviewed this year anyway. The window is wide open to make the change and bring Canada into line with our allies.
This change has been a long-time coming. When the Afghan detainee scandal broke, we set up an ad hoc committee to allow parliamentarians to review classified documents. We are currently doing the same for the firing of two scientists from a lab in Winnipeg. NSICOP was intended to get the intelligence community used to having parliamentarians oversee them, without worrying that they might disclose what they learned. Since anything a parliamentarian says in parliamentary proceedings is protected and beyond the reach of the courts, NSICOP’s legislation included a clause that removed that privilege from its members. A court recently found that this was unconstitutional. As it stands, members of NSICOP can reveal anything they wish during a parliamentary proceeding without facing the penalties outlined in the Security of Information Act. None of them have done so, of course. The NSICOP test run should be over; parliamentarians have shown that they can handle classified information responsibly. It’s time for an actual committee of Parliament to replace it.
Finally, Johnston recommended that opposition leaders review the classified information he’s seen. This shouldn’t be a one off. Opposition leaders should be briefed on significant national security issues by default. Limiting their access to this one file would be a mistake. It’s time to shock the system and ensure that all major party leaders understand what threats Canada faces and what’s needed to respond to them. If we want politicians to behave more responsibly when it comes to national security, we first have to give them responsibilities.
What would the government gain by doing any of this, we might ask? Well, this entire episode might have unfolded differently had the prime minister been able to tell the opposition leader to look at the intelligence on Chinese interference on day one. Enough of the half measures and utterly Canadian dithering and doubting. Let’s get on with it before the window closes.
Philippe Lagassé is associate professor and Barton Chair, Carleton University.
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