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By: Dana Wagner on
Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness and MP for Regina — Wascana, in an Opinion on October 3, 2016
The new committee can track evidence across different departments and agencies. But there are limits on the type of information the committee can access.FactsCan Score: Misleading
Last month, the Liberals laid out their plan to create a committee of parliamentarians to oversee the activities of national security agencies.
The 2015 election surfaced parliamentary oversight as a key change promised under a Trudeau government, which would fix the lack of oversight of Canada’s spy agency CSIS, the RCMP and other national security bodies. A key problem faced by watchdog bodies, according to the Liberals and other critics, was the inability to follow information beyond one agency.
Ralph Goodale, the public safety minister, outlined the purpose of the committee in an opinion in the National Post, emphasizing that MPs and senators sitting on the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians will have “extraordinary access to classified information.”
“Unlike existing national security review bodies, it will not be siloed to one agency,” Goodale said. “The committee will be able to examine any department or agency responsible for any aspect of national security or intelligence, going wherever the evidence takes them.”
It’s a big claim, to say members of the committee can go “wherever the evidence takes them.”
That implies few to no limits.
What are the limits to information access?
The proposed law establishing the committee lists exceptions to its access to information.
Among the seven exceptions listed are Cabinet confidences, information related to ongoing military operations, information related to ongoing law enforcement investigations, and witness and source identities.
In addition, the law would allow a minister of any department under question by the committee to refuse to provide information. A refusal is allowed if the minister determines two things: that the committee’s request involves “special operational information” and that providing it would be “injurious to national security.” The former term is broadly defined in the Security of Information Act. It includes information that would reveal, “whether a place, person, agency, group, body or entity was, is or is intended to be the object of a covert investigation, or a covert collection of information or intelligence, by the Government of Canada.”
Kent Roach, a national security law expert at the University of Toronto, said, “what the minister says is correct subject to any claims of secrecy” allowed by the law.
With that caveat, however, Goodale’s statement is technically incorrect. As written, the law does not open the door to all information.
What are the limits to agency access?
Goodale’s statement could be interpreted to mean that the committee can go “wherever the evidence takes them” among departments and agencies, instead of being restricted to just one.
A spokesperson for Goodale’s office told FactsCan the minister was making a point about overcoming silos.
Interpreted this way, the statement is true.
“[The committee] will have access to information that is under the control of any department or agency and related to the committee’s mandate,” said Scott Bardsley, Goodale’s press secretary. “For instance, if while examining an issue with the CSIS, the committee discovered a strong link to RCMP, it could follow that lead.”
Roach confirmed the committee has a “whole of government mandate.” This is unlike other watch dog bodies, such as the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which are limited to reviewing one agency and cannot follow a trail beyond that agency.
There’s a difference between what Goodale said, and what he meant to say.
On what he meant to say: It’s true that the new body, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, can track evidence across different departments and agencies.
On what he actually said: It’s false that the MPs and senators overseeing national security activities can go “wherever the evidence takes them.” There are limits on the type of information the committee can access.
Because it’s easy to confuse the two interpretations, we score Goodale’s statement misleading.