Thursday, March 18, 2010

Why we need a Commons Select Committee on Intelligence

I haven’t written a whole lot on the Afghan detainee document battle between Parliament and the Conservative government. I’ve felt my blogging colleagues have covered the issue well. My own feelings, in short, are that Parliament has the right to demand documents, and it must fight for that right. Also, it can’t cede that right to a government-appointed judge. It’s a dangerous precedent that would dilute its constitutional prerogative, and besides, is also an obvious stall by the government to avoid the issue until after the next election.


I’ve been thinking, though, that the issues raised by this affair highlight the need, beyond the specifics of this case, for real, lasting structural change in the relationship between our legislative and executive branches of government, and how they deal with issues of national security. We need structure and procedures in place, so when issues like the Afghan torture documents come up, it’s handled in a structured way and not in an ad-hoc manner as we’re seeing now, where partisan considerations are seen, correctly or not, as colouring the positions of each side.

The opposition believes the government is using national security as a smokescreen to avoid political embarrassment. The government believes the opposition is willing to toss aside national security for a political fishing expedition. Neither side is willing to back down.

That’s why, looking beyond this case, we’ve got to, in so much as it’s possible, get the politics out of it.

Let’s go back to basics, and examine what the relationship between the executive (the Harper government and cabinet) and the legislative (House of Commons and Senate) is intended to be. The government governs, within the laws and budget passed by the legislature. The government acts within those laws and budget, and the legislature examines and monitors those government actions. Checks and balances, it’s called. We’ll leave the judiciary out of it for now.

It’s more defined in the U.S. system, where the executive (the president) is elected directly and separately from the legislative branch (Congress). It gets more muddled in our parliamentary system, with the executive being drawn from members of the majority (or just the largest) represented party in the House of Commons, nominally by the Governor-General. But the same principle of checks and balances holds true: the role of the legislative branch is to examine and scrutinize the actions of the executive, and national security cannot trump its responsibility to do so.

And this is an occasion where we can actually take a lesson from our American cousins. Hey, really, it does happen sometimes. They have what’s called the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It includes Senators from both parties. It usually meets confidentially, and the White House and the intelligence agencies (the executive) is required, by law, to brief the committee (the legislative) on intelligence activities so government actions can be scrutinized and examined. Nothing held back for national security excuses: the committee hears it all. Obviously national security must be respected, and secrets must be kept secret. And the law proscribes penalties for the disclosure of confidential information. But the executive must brief and be questioned by the legislative, which can take further action if it determines it to be necessary.

We need something similar for Canada. We need a House of Commons Select Committee on Intelligence. Members from each party, sworn into the Privy Council to allow them to be briefed on confidential information by the government, and be bound by law and the penalties proscribed thereby to respect that confidentiality. The committee would meet confidentially, and be fully briefed by the government on national security matters, nothing held back, with the ability to question and probe and call witnesses like other parliamentary committees to investigate government activities in its area of responsibility.

We usually won’t get to know or hear what the committee knows or hears. But we can be confident knowing all of the parties are at the table, being briefed, so we can be confident our views are being represented, putting faith in the good judgement of our representatives. So if our guys have been briefed and tell is its all good, we can believe them more readily than we can believe the other guys. And secrets stay secret.

And if the committee feels that wrongdoing has occurred, that security is being used as a smokescreen, then mechanisms can be put in place to deal with that; be it the power or a procedure to seek the declassification of documents and expose them to the light of day, or a procedure for investigation, sanction, and/or court proceedings when warranted.

The details and specifics would need to be ironed out, but I think the core idea and principle is what we need to commit to: a mechanism to allow Parliament to truly exercise its oversight duties over the executive while respecting the appropriate bounds of national security. There may be other more ad hoc ways to do it, but I think a committee as outlined would a meaningful way of getting there, and a lasting structural change that would go some ways to removing partisanship from the equation.

I hope the Liberals, and all the parties, will consider going down this road in the near future, so we don’t have to suffer more dramas like the detainee document case.

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5 comments:

CanadianSense said...

Jeff,

the opposition have no stomach to back up their stunts. The tools exist to remove this gov't. They choose to leave them in place including their Agenda.

Here's the rub or disconnect frm reality: the opps painted the gov't as refusing to cooperate and redacting. The Gov't has reconvended the committee.

The Civil Servants are doing their job of redacting.

The opp are suggesting "political interference" again they are deciding what is being redacted and covered up.

Where is the evidence?

A judge will be brought in to review the work of the Civil Servants if they were not doing their job properly or political interference has taken place?

The allegations of "political interference" without proof is reckless an irresponsible.

The fallout did not punish the CPC in November 2009.

Why do you think the opposition dropped the Derek Lee motion to test "super duper" powers to recover those documents?

Why not ask those civil servants if the Gov't is directing them what to redact?

That would terminate this manufactured scandal?

The framing in the media and opposition is not sustainable.

Neither was the 22 day delay of sitting on QP.

When you examine the actual facts of what the opposition are screaming about, the disconnect explains their level of support at the ballot box.

What party was punished in November 2009 in four contests for not providing an alternative?

Evil scary CPC does not stand up to scrutiny.

H1N1,Olympic logo, Torch Relay, Stimulus Spending, Cover up, War Crimes, Wafergate.

When the issue are examined the opposition have been found guilty of manufacturing a crisis.

Where is the alternative policy ideas and why won't they introduce them into the Parliament?

Jeff Jedras said...

While the bulk of your comment was an off-topic rant, thank-you, CS,for demonstrating exactly why we need to remove issues of national security and public safety from the partisan bun-fest and into a responsible structure for examining the actions of the government.

The Rat said...

That's a fine idea and works well enough in a system with two parties where each knows that they will most certainly hold power in the near future, trading sides. The problem with an all party select committee in Canada is that some parties won't ever hold power, ie the NDP, some want nothing more than to destroy that power - the Bloc, and some have apparently forgotten they were in power when a lot of this crap went down - hint hint. The thing that keeps secrets secret in the US isn't law and punishment, it's the knowledge that what goes around comes around. That just wouldn't work in Canada. Even the US is having trouble now that Obama is blurring that line with his talk of investigating the CIA officers involved in water boarding.

I would support such a committee if each member was thoroughly vetted for security. Under such a system you have to know that ex-communist organizers like Ujjal Dosanjh could never be given that responsibility. Libby Davies? Hah! Any member of the separatist-and-therefore-not-terribly-loyal-to-Canada Bloc would also have to be excluded unless they took a proper oath of loyalty to CANADA - not just Quebec. If the Liberals put forward Iggy, fine, but then you know that nothing - NOTHING- could ever be said to caucus, no hints, nada. Do you think that would really work? Because I still think there are too many Liberals, NDP, Bloc, and yes Conservative MPs who would release this info for partisan advantage.

Eugene Forsey Liberal said...

FYI: Lee proposed the Special Committee thing a few years ago, I think.

Jeff Jedras said...

Rat,

Obviously, everyone is going to be distrustful of everyone else to a degree. But everyone still has a job to do, and everyone is still elected by the people of their constituents to do it, so that's really all the legitimacy they need in a democratic system.

You say we can't trust each other but, right now, we're all being asked to just trust the government. That's a pretty big leap of faith.

You need reps from every party at the table. You swear them into the Privy Council. And if there is a leak, if someone releases confidential information, they face the consequences of the law, which tend to be pretty severe on these things.

Behind closed doors, outside the glares of the camera, there is actually much less partisanship then we see om TV. Members of all parties work together, socialize together, like and trust each other.

When a specific case like the detainee docs comes up, everyone gets their partisan backs up and looks at it through a partisan lens. That's why we need the structure of a standing committee, to move outside that.