Sunday, April 12, 2015
No CSIS Oversight
NO CSIS OVERSIGHT
PLUNKETT TRUELY HONEST LAW ENFORCEMENT
Ex-spy watchdog Plunkett calls CSIS civilian review ‘a joke’
By Andrew Mitrovica | Apr 10, 2015 3:59 pm
Eva Plunkett is not prone to hyperbole. The former inspector-general for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – the public servant who was, once upon a time, the Public Safety minister’s eyes and ears inside Canada’s spy agency — chooses her words very carefully.
Plunkett spent nearly a decade as IG before Stephen Harper shuttered the office in 2012 because she was doing too good a job — routinely issuing reports that diplomatically raised the alarm about CSIS’s questionable conduct. She took the work seriously.
So when Plunkett says that the government’s civilian oversight body, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, is a “joke” — take it to the bank. She knows what she’s talking about. And nobody knows better how vacuous the assurances offered by Prime Minister Harper and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney about the draconian powers CSIS is getting under Bill C-51 truly are.
These days, Plunkett happily spends much of her time working with horses instead of spies. So I wasn’t surprised that she was reluctant to talk about the espionage biz when we chatted earlier this week. “I’m retired now,” she said. “I’m stepping away from it.”
Plunkett told me she actually turned down an invitation to appear as an expert witness before the Public Safety and National Security Committee on C-51. She didn’t elaborate on her reasons; personally, I suspect she simply didn’t want to run the gauntlet of Tory backbench hand-puppets who have been treating C-51’s opponents to derision and snide insinuations during the hearings.
But Plunkett says she still has “strong views” about espionage, C-51 and the Harper government’s lackadaisical notions of accountability. So — after a little prodding — she began by ripping into the Harper government’s refusal to listen to any outside expert opinion recommending significant amendments to C-51.
“The reality of it is that this government isn’t interested in what anyone has to say because they have a majority. They will proceed and do a few minor, cosmetic adjustments,” she said.
Plunkett also offered some caustic comment on the odds of the Harper government heeding widespread calls for robust accountability and parliamentary oversight of the day-to-day operations of CSIS, given the extraordinary powers the spy service will get through C-51.
“They certainly won’t add any more resources,” she said. “They will eliminate resources.”
And she had a stark warning for the federal government and Canadians about what can happen when secret services are armed with extraordinary powers in the absence of credible oversight.
“They seem to forget that people who are given a lot of intrusive authority and power then sometimes get wrapped up in this mindset that they know what’s best for the greater good and they become overzealous. Good people in their own right, but they become overzealous,” Plunkett said.
Recall that in her final report as IG in 2012, Plunkett informed the federal government that CSIS often flouts its own policies and makes “numerous” errors in reporting on intelligence matters which undermine the spy service’s credibility and reputation.
She also noted that, despite the IG’s small staff (eight people) and budget (a paltry $1 million) “it is the only independent, impartial resource available to the (Public Safety) Minister to support his responsibility and accountability for an organization which works in secret but has been given highly intrusive powers.”
Harper’s response to Plunkett’s disturbing findings was to make CSIS happy by ensuring Plunkett never issued another critical report; he closed the IG’s office for good. Outside a handful of interested journalists, politicians and academics, nobody raised much of a fuss.
With the IG gone, that left SIRC as the only agency that occasionally takes a glance over the shoulders of our spies. But, as Plunkett rightly points out, SIRC’s mandate does not include oversight of CSIS — nor is it much of a review agency.
SIRC is a limp, ineffectual body that, from time to time, administers complaints about CSIS it receives from the public. Its five-member part-time executive committee — the current committee has been short one member for ages — meets a few times every other month, and tends to be comprised of ex-politicians looking for something to do with their spare time.
SIRC’s acting chair is Deborah Grey, the former Reform Party MP who — ironically — once agreed with her ex-boss, Preston Manning, when he denounced SIRC in the House of Commons as a useless dumping ground for surplus government hacks.
For her part, Plunkett’s current assessment of SIRC is simple, clear and absolutely bang-on.
“This government, even though they go on and on about security, they have no interest in accountability so they put their political hacks in that joke of a committee called SIRC,” Plunkett told me.
“It really is a complaints body … They have a small office who they present their reports to, are all political appointees who come to Ottawa for a day and half every two months. So where is the oversight there?
“You know, no one is going to present a report in those offices that is going to ruffle feathers.”
Taken together, Plunkett’s remarks are about as damning an appraisal of SIRC as I’ve ever heard in all the years I’ve covered the intelligence file. Plunkett agreed to be quoted on the record after I suggested that her voice needed to heard by Canadians at a time when the Harper government — blinkers firmly in place — hurtles towards passing a law that will give CSIS even more sweeping powers.
There’s still time for Harper to listen to reason. Like Eva Plunkett, I know he probably won’t.
Andrew Mitrovica is a writer and journalism instructor. For much of his career, Andrew was an investigative reporter for a variety of news organizations and publications including the CBC’s fifth estate, CTV’s W5, CTV National News — where he was the network’s chief investigative producer — the Walrus magazine and the Globe and Mail, where he was a member of the newspaper’s investigative unit. During the course of his 23-year career, Andrew has won numerous national and international awards for his investigative work.