Ottawa is considering setting up a “super” Security Intelligence Review Committee that would provide oversight to a number of federal security departments and agencies, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says.

He made the revelation Monday during testimony to a Senate committee studying oversight of the Canada Border Services Agency, suggesting that the creation of a “superSIRC” is one of several options to solve a problem at the border agency, which has no process in place to deal with complaints about officer conduct.

SIRC is the independent, external review body that reports to Parliament on the operations of Canadian Security Intelligence Service, ensuring that the spy agency uses its extraordinary powers to intrude on individuals’ privacy legally and appropriately.

Broadening its reach to include other departments and agencies – making a superSIRC – was first raised a decade ago by Justice Dennis O’Connor during the federal commission of inquiry into the Maher Arar affair.

The Canadian engineer was jailed and interrogated in his native Syria for nearly a year after being flown against his will to the Middle East on a U.S. intelligence agency jet. Canadian security agencies had wrongly red-flagged him as a potential terrorist in intelligence exchanges with the United States.

Upon learning that the agencies had been forging investigative partnerships that their watchdogs could not replicate, Justice O’Connor proposed a solution observers dubbed “superSIRC.”

The proposal envisioned transforming the existing CSIS watchdog – SIRC – into a body that could keep tabs on several agencies at once. Security agencies can freely swap information and intelligence, but their respective review bodies remain legally prevented from telling each other what they’re learning.

The government will launch consultations on Canada’s national security framework this summer, which Mr. Goodale said will inform its position on CBSA oversight.

At the committee hearing, Mr. Goodale presented other options for the CBSA, as well. He proposed that the RCMP’s Civilian Review and Complaints Commission could be expanded to include oversight of the CBSA or the creation of a similar standalone body strictly for the agency.

“That is a gap that definitely needs to be addressed,” Mr. Goodale said. “Given the powers and the authorities vested in this organization, ensuring an effective system of review and scrutiny is absolutely essential.”

Mr. Goodale appeared before the committee Monday to offer his view on Liberal Senator Wilfred Moore’s Bill S-205, which proposes to appoint an inspector-general of the CBSA to handle complaints against the agency. While Mr. Goodale supports the “spirit” of the bill, he said he cannot back the legislation in its current form because the national security review is not finished. He also cited “technical defects” with the bill itself.

For instance, Mr. Goodale said he is concerned about a provision that would give an inspector-general access to cabinet confidences – access that SIRC does not even have. He also raised questions about how the inspector-general would interact with existing review processes and how that could lead to the duplication of review activities.

There were questions at the committee about what would happen with regards to CBSA oversight if the bill does not pass. Mr. Moore tabled the same bill in the last parliamentary session calling for the creation of an inspector-general position at the CBSA, but it failed to pass before the election. Mr. Goodale said the government plans to table legislation on the matter as soon as possible after its national security review.

“I hope to wrap up that consultation before the end of this year. So my goal [for tabling legislation] would be in the early part of 2017.”

The federal cabinet is expected to review the proposed parliamentary oversight committee very soon so that Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc can table legislation to establish that committee before Parliament breaks for the summer. The committee would include MPs and senators from all parties and monitor the work of 19 agencies with national security responsibilities.

Richard Fadden, former CSIS director and national security adviser to the prime minister, said Sunday that the parliamentary committee will need access to classified information if it is expected to be effective.

“The logical thing to do would be to establish this committee of parliamentarians, give them some staff, access to classified information, and then work through whether SIRC or the CSEC [Communications Security Establishment Canada] commissioner or the person who reviews military intelligence are integrated properly, or not,” Mr. Fadden told CTV’s Question Period with The Globe and Mail’s Robert Fife.

“Broadly speaking, I think there is something to be said for somebody somewhere having an overview.”

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, May 30, 2016 10:11PM EDT
Last updated Monday, May 30, 2016 10:21PM EDT