By Jim Cox 

In the best of times, Canadians are, if not naïve, then generally apathetic about national intelligence activity conducted on their behalf. Count many Members of Parliament among the disinterested and ignorant too (Senators tend to know much more in this field). Some people have been interested enough to express concern that government intelligence activity can violate civil rights and expectations of privacy, but such pre-occupations tend to overshadow more legitimate concerns about the effectiveness of the Canadian intelligence enterprise (CIE), defined as the integrated, purposeful activity that provides learned and reasoned foresight, thereby enabling governments, at all levels, to act with advantage against a wide spectrum of threats. This definition intentionally distinguishes intelligence from operational security activity. The former has received much less professional and public attention than the latter.


So, is the CIE effective? Yes, surprisingly so, but it could be better. However, how might Canadians know what needs to be done? Until recently, Canadians have had no credible, legislated way of knowing much about Canadian intelligence activity, but help is at hand. On 22 June 2017, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians Act (2017) received Royal assent and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) was established.


The NSICOP serves as a relatively independent, high-level reviewer of Canada’s legislative, regulatory, policy, administrative and financial framework for national security and intelligence. Its mandate allows review of any national security or intelligence activity, unless it is an ongoing operation and if a relevant Minister determines that the review would be injurious to national security. Ministers may also refer any matter relating to national security or intelligence to the Committee.


NSICOP, chaired by The Hon. David McGuinty, is composed of seven Members of Parliament and three Senators, each of whom hold the highest level of security clearance, are bound by the Security of Information Act and meet in private. According to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians Act, the NSICOP must promulgate a report of the reviews it has conducted during the year and submit it to the Prime Minister. It may also submit a special report at any time, on any issue within its mandate. NSICOP’s first annual report was delivered to the Prime Minister on 21 December 2018, but its contents have not yet been shared with Canadians at large. We may not see it at all, if government seeks to keep Canadians in the dark about the general operation of their CIE. The 2018 NSICOP annual report deals with two important government intelligence activities reviewed last year.


First, it reports on how the government establishes national intelligence priorities that provide the basis for direction to intelligence organizations for the collection and analysis of information, from which intelligence is derived. This process is the primary mechanism by which the Prime Minister, Cabinet and senior officials exercise effective and proper control and oversight of the overall Canadian intelligence enterprise.


Second, NSICOP also reviewed, for the first time, the intelligence function within the Department of National Defence (DND) and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), focused on the structure and scope of defence intelligence activities, the legal authorities underpinning their conduct, and the internal oversight and governance mechanisms in place for their control and accountability.The Prime Minister received the first NSICOP report on 29 December 2018.  Why haven’t Canadians yet seen a public version?


Once received, the Prime Minister must review the report and if, after consulting the NSICOP Chair, he is of the opinion that disclosure of information in the report would be injurious to national security, national defence or international relations, or if the information is protected by litigation privilege or by solicitor-client privilege, or the professional secrecy of advocates and notaries, the Prime Minister may direct the Committee to submit a revised version of the report that does not include such information.


Upon receipt of an agreed original or revised report, the Prime Minister must lay it before each House of Parliament, within the first thirty sitting days in that House. Presuming the Prime Minister accepted the original NSICOP annual report and has not requested an additional revised report, Canadians may still not see anything until early April or May this year. The House of Commons began its 2019 sittings on 28 January, so the thirtieth sitting day falls on 8 April. The Senate begins sitting on 19 February. The thirtieth sitting day falls on 6 May. In the meantime, Canadians remain virtually, maybe blissfully ignorant about anything but the most elementary aspects of their Canadian intelligence enterprise. It’s as if the NSICOP never existed.


Brigadier General (Ret’d) Dr. James S. Cox is a Research Fellow with the Conference of Defence Association’s Institute. He served in the Canadian Armed Forces for over 35 years, mainly in operational command and staff positions. In addition, he served as an analyst for the Library of Parliament from 2005 to 2011, supporting parliamentary committees dealing with national security and defence.


Jim is a graduate of the University of Manitoba, Canadian Army Command and Staff College, and holds both an MA and PhD from the Royal Military College of Canada in War Studies. He was appointed as an Officer to the Order of Military Merit. Today, Jim is also a fellow with the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs.

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