The Snowden papers have generated questions about whether the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) is adhering strictly to its mandate. By extension, this has generated a debate on whether Canada has a credible accountability and review regime for its intelligence agencies. Both CSEC and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) have agency-specific review bodies which cannot reveal all the details of their findings to the public.

Our intelligence agencies may be functioning exactly as intended, but without a higher degree of transparency, Canadians are not convinced. It is not helpful that the government has sometimes diminished the voice of official review organizations. In the intelligence community, the Office of the Inspector General for CSIS was eliminated on the grounds that its functions could easily be carried out by the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC).

In an age in which the principal threat to internal security is from a terrorist attack, a principal source of intelligence must be a vigilant citizenry. A diminished trust in the integrity of intelligence agencies damages effectiveness. If a necessary part of trust is an accountability system that is itself accepted by the public as transparent, trustworthy and vigilant, then the Canadian system is seriously flawed.

An intelligence review system must balance contradictory objectives. We need to be confident that agency activities are within legal and moral bounds, but agencies should not be expected to release information that will compromise their effectiveness, methods or sources. Reviewers must have access to some secrets without increasing the already high risk of leakage or hostile penetration. Agencies must spend time on the process of review, but not to an extent that significantly restricts the time and resources needed to carry out the agency’s mandate.

Many mechanisms have been tried by allies and others. Both CSE and CSIS have dedicated review agencies (the Office of the Communications Security Establishment Commissioner for CSEC, and SIRC for CSIS), but their assurances are not accepted by the public as conclusive. The Senate Committee on National Security and Defence has conducted important reviews, but does not have the profile or credibility of a committee of elected officials. In the United Kingdom, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is selected from both the Commons and Lords, and has managed to combine accountability and discretion. It has been seen by many in Canada as a model that could be adapted to our circumstances, although Canada lacks several of the important Westminster assets: a large cadre of career parliamentarians, and the presence of senior intelligence veterans in the two houses.

Australia has the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security which can review complaints or undertake reviews across the six departments and agencies forming the intelligence community. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security conducts regular reviews of intelligence agencies.

In the U.S., as many as 12 committees review intelligence activities, with the two main committees being the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. While the U.S. system certainly fosters public debate, it has not prevented the abuse of intelligence powers, is prone to critical leaks, and certainly consumes time and resources for the intelligence agencies. Even with the intensity of the review and oversight process, the U.S. is usually the starting point for arguments about cost, excess, abuse and ineffectiveness.

Canada must eventually address the question of review and accountability if agencies are to retain the trust of the public. This trust is critical if we believe that an alert citizenry, ready to “see something; say something” is an important intelligence asset. It is even more important to build trust if we want particular communities with vulnerable youth to see the intelligence agencies as partners in defusing problems.

We must eventually design an accountability system that comprises the whole Canadian intelligence system, and which finds the best balance across competing objectives. This cannot be done by striking out offices, adding new structures, or changing in minor ways the appointment process for the review agencies.

If we want a system that is carefully constructed, the best initiating mechanism would be a small task force constituted to represent the executive, parliamentarians, the public, academics, legal experts and the agencies. The challenge would be to design an accountability and review system that would be trusted by Canadians, and in turn ensure that the agencies themselves were both trusted and effective.


Greg Fyffe, president of CASIS, was executive director of the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat from 2000 to 2008, and currently teaches intelligence and security and strategic thinking at the University of Ottawa.