Published on: November 14, 2014 Last Updated: November 14, 2014 6:35 PM EST
The weakened watchdog group overseeing Canada’s ever more powerful spy service says it is “struggling to operate efficiently” and falling behind at investigating complaints.
The five-seat Security Intelligence Review Committee, better known as SIRC, was established 30 years ago to assure Parliament the activities of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) are lawful, appropriate and effective.
But in a new 2013-14 performance report, SIRC raises doubts about its ability to properly execute some of those duties following a spate of resignations and retirements. That includes four chairs in less than three years and two current vacancies awaiting governor-in-council appointments.
“Committee appointments are of crucial importance to SIRC, we need to have five members,” Lindsay Jackson, SIRC’s assistant director of research, said Friday. “We must have the ability to keep pace with CSIS’s operational realities in order to provide effective review.”
Former permanent chairman Arthur Porter quit in 2012 amid controversy. He has since been fighting extradition to Canada from a Panamanian prison cell to face corruption-related charges in an alleged construction kickback scheme in Montreal.
Porter was briefly replaced by former Conservative MP and cabinet minister Carol Skelton, who handed the job to former Conservative cabinet minister Chuck Strahl in June 2012.
Stahl resigned in January over allegations his work as a lobbyist for pipeline giant Enbridge conflicted with his SIRC duties. He has been replaced by interim chair Deborah Grey, the former Reform MP.
Two other members retired earlier this year prior to the end of their five-year terms, leaving three part-time committee members and 17 staff to watch over Canada’s chief intelligence-gathering service.
To cope, the agency has “increased the scheduling flexibility for its meetings in order to ensure quorum,” says the report.
“I think what that means, frankly, is the SIRC appointees are meeting much less frequently even than they used to do in the past,” says Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa visiting professor.
“I know that the SIRC people are concerned about the possibility” of someone falling ill, says Wark.
The Conservative government, which abolished the office of the inspector general of CSIS in 2012, has given no indication when it intends to fill the vacancies, said Jackson.
CSIS, meanwhile, is in the midst of a rapidly changing national security scene, with evolving threats from domestic Islamist extremists and cyber spies.
The government is responding by proposing broader powers for the state intelligence agency. In arguments filed with the Supreme Court this week, for example, federal lawyers asked the court to clarify the legal steps CSIS must take to enlist allied agencies to help it spy on Canadians overseas.
The SIRC’s primary responsibilities are to review CSIS operations and to investigate public complaints over its activities.
Complaints are the most demanding. The agency’s target to complete 85 per cent of complaint investigations within a service standard of about three years has fallen to 50 per cent, according to the report.
Liberal Party public safety critic Wayne Easter believes SIRC carries some of the blame.
“SIRC is not living up to its mandate,” he said. “SIRC maybe needs to be a little more aggressive,” by seeking a hearing before the Commons public safety committee to pressure the government for more resources.
Easter is author of a private members bill calling for creation of a parliamentary committee to oversee CSIS. “The glaring problem with SIRC is only emphasizing (the need for) this further,” he said.
Former chair Strahl said Friday that if CSIS is going to be given broader powers, “then it may well be necessary to review the role of SIRC, or resources for SIRC, or both.”
He suspects the government is being extra diligent in selecting candidates to fill the two vacancies.
“The Arthur Porter thing has made them pretty gun-shy and so I just think they’re being very prudent. It’s in everybody’s best interest to just do it thoughtfully rather than wait until some headline hits you that reflects poorly on the country and on the service and on the government.”