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Declining trust in intelligence agencies suggests need for oversight

The introduction of Bill C-51, the federal government’s proposed anti-terrorism legislation, has renewed calls for greater oversight of Canada’s intelligence agencies.

At present, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s activities are reviewed by the Security Intelligence Review Committee while a lone commissioner oversees the work of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).

For the past decade, however, opposition parties, academics and pundits have been arguing for parliamentary review of intelligence activities similar to that adopted by Canada’s Five Eyes allies in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Among those calling for change is a former head of one of those agencies. John Adams led CSE from 2005 to 2012 following an extensive career in both the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard, and often encouraged the government and the organization to be more open about its role and some of its activities.

Though the government appears intent on pushing the Bill through the House of Commons and is unlikely to make any amendments, Adams believes that public trust in Canada’s intelligence agencies is rapidly waning. And that spells trouble as the demands on agencies increase.

“I am convinced that we are too far removed from Canadians,” he said during a panel presentation to the annual symposium of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies in January.

Adams repeated a previous call for a parliamentary review committee comprised of members from all parties in the House and Senate who would hold the appropriate security clearances. The forum would allow agencies to brief and answer question from parliamentarians, who could then inform fellow MPs and constituents..

“I’m hoping that would close the gap,” Adams said. “If we don’t have Canadian’s trust, we won’t have license to do what we may need to do [in the future].”

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