Notes for remarks to the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence

By the Hon. Jean-Pierre Plouffe, Communications Security Establishment Commissioner

June 12, 2017

Check Against Delivery

Chair, honourable Senators, I'm pleased to appear once again before this committee, this time on the subject of Bill C-22.  I am accompanied by Bill Galbraith, the Executive Director of my office.

I appeared last Fall before the Commons Standing Committee examining this Bill.  There have been changes made to the Bill.  I will not repeat all that I said previously but rather speak to some of the changes, focus on a few new points and add what, in my view, bears repeating. 

First, I welcome this bill and the greater engagement of parliamentarians in national security accountability that it represents.  I will also welcome the opportunity to engage more closely with parliamentarians through a complementary relationship, one that avoids unnecessary duplication as required in this bill. 

I believe the committee of parliamentarians having access to classified information and the ability to examine – with certain qualifications – any activity of an agency or department involved in national security will, in co-operation with existing review bodies, provide a solid foundation for a comprehensive framework of accountability for national security activities. 

This committee will fill a void.  Its broad mandate, as set out in this bill, will enable it to have a strategic, broad view over all of government national security activities.  It will be able to follow information through agencies and departments.  This should add significantly to creating the desired comprehensive accountability framework.  It will, of course, be a work in progress as it finds its orientation.  That is reflected in the five year review clause.

Together, we, the Committee and the existing review bodies, must also strive for transparency to the extent possible, to allow Parliament and the public to be better informed about the conduct of national security activities and how the agencies and departments are held to account.  

This will be a subject of discussion as we develop our working relationship with the Committee.  Transparency plays a role in helping to build and strengthen public trust that the agencies mandated to protect Canada and Canadians are doing so effectively and within the limits of their respective mandates, respectful of our freedoms and privacy.  I have made it a cornerstone of my approach as Commissioner.

The working relationship between the Committee and its secretariat on the one hand and the existing review bodies on the other will require sustained effort from the start.  There are general parameters about this relationship in the bill, about avoiding unnecessary duplication (section 9) and about the exchange of information (sections 22 and 23).

Given this general guidance, it will be incumbent upon all of us to strive hard, particularly at the outset, to ensure that our roles are complementary and not duplicating each other's work, to make the most effective and efficient use of our respective resources.  I am not suggesting, however, that the bill include detailed guidance.  Better that experience and a common interest shape the relationship.

But we have given some thought to how we might begin a productive relationship.  Just three quick points for example:

A defined part of the relationship between the Committee and the review bodies is the exchange of information as set out in sections 22 and 23 of the bill.  Each of the two parties – the Committee and the review bodies – may provide information that is related to the fulfillment of the other's mandate.

The development of these exchanges of information will facilitate defining our respective roles, strengthening complementarity and helping to avoid duplication.  I view these exchanges as facilitating and strengthening overall accountability.

There has been considerable discussion about what information the Committee of Parliamentarians will have access to.

Specifically, we are referring to sections 8(1)(b), 14 and 16.  From my perspective, I believe the limitation set out in 8(1)(b) seems reasonable, accompanied by sub-section 8(2).  That is, that a Minister may refuse to provide information on an ongoing operation, that he or she determines is injurious to national security but must inform and provide the Committee with his or her reasons.

How often will this occur?  Experience will tell us.  However, my experience has been that often the concerns we have are seldom realized to the same extent as we had thought initially.  I would expect that this prerogative may be used sparingly by appropriate ministers.

One of the changes made to the bill through the process in the House of Commons was the reduction of limitations or exceptions in terms of what information the Committee of Parliamentarians could have access to.

In section 14 there remain four exceptions – from seven previously.  Those four exceptions would, in my view, appear reasonable, taking into account the purpose and scheme of the bill and its entire context.

The same comments would apply to section 16, which relates to refusing to provide “special operational information” that is injurious to national security.  Again, the Minister must provide reasons and if the information relates to CSE, CSIS or the RCMP, the Minister must also provide the reasons to the relevant review body, that is, one of us appearing before you today.

There has also been debate about the composition of the Committee of Parliamentarians, with suggestions that the number of Senators be increased.  This would appear reasonable, given the longer tenure of Senators.  Indeed, Senators have the opportunity to accumulate knowledge and to develop expertise over time which strengthens the ability to ask more probing questions of the agencies and departments.  This would also bring the benefits of continuity and institutional memory.  The Secretariat will also play an important role in this regard.

I look forward, to working with the Committee of Parliamentarians when it becomes a reality.   

Thank you for this opportunity to appear before you today.  We look forward to answering your questions.

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