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Watchdog's relations with spy community 'particularly strained' over last year

OTTAWA — Newly released documents say the intelligence community's relationship with its key watchdog has been particularly strained over the last year due to a "level of resistance" to scrutiny.
Newly released documents say the intelligence community's relationship with its key watchdog have been "particularly strained" over the last year due to a "level of resistance" to scrutiny. Marie Deschamps, speaks at a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday, April 30, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — Newly released documents say the intelligence community's relationship with its key watchdog has been particularly strained over the last year due to a "level of resistance" to scrutiny.

The assessment appears in briefing materials prepared for Canada's top public servant in advance of a late January meeting with the chair of the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency. 

The notes were disclosed to The Canadian Press in response to a request to the Privy Council Office under the Access to Information Act. 

This is just the latest indication of serious tensions between the spy watchdog and the federal intelligence agencies it monitors.

It follows the recent release of intelligence review agency records that lamented a culture within the Communications Security Establishment of "resisting and impeding" independent review, frustrating efforts to ensure the cyberspy service is obeying the law.

The latest notes surface amid an RCMP investigation into leaks of classified information to the media — including details of Canadian Security Intelligence Service reports — concerning allegations of foreign interference by China in Canadian political affairs.

In January, national security adviser Jody Thomas sent a memo to Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette to brief her before a meeting with the chair of the intelligence review agency, known as NSIRA.

"The Chair considers that there remains a level of resistance to NSIRA's review activities and may seek your support in elevating the culture of review with Government of Canada departments and agencies," the memo says.

Created in 2019, NSIRA is an independent body, reporting to Parliament, that reviews all federal national security and intelligence activities to ensure they are lawful, reasonable and necessary. It also investigates public complaints regarding national security agencies and activities.

Background documents accompanying the memo from Thomas say the review agency's relationships with many organizations "have been challenging."

Contributing factors have included the need for departments to adapt to new review requirements without additional resources, as well as NSIRA's broad interpretation of its mandate and the approaches it has taken, the documents say.

They add that chair Marie Deschamps, a former Supreme Court judge, had recently met with Thomas and acknowledged that the adjustment to new review practices takes time and that "the culture of review is improving" within the security and intelligence community.

A preface to suggested "talking points" for Charette, as she prepared to meet Deschamps, noted that ministers and deputies had "been surprised by the topics raised and the level of detail discussed by the chair during bilateral discussions."

Charette was advised to tell Deschamps the Privy Council Office and the whole security and intelligence community recognized the importance of independent, external review.

"I am aware that, from the community's perspective, departmental relationships with NSIRA have been particularly strained over the last year," the suggested talking points read.

"I can assure you that these relationship difficulties are not, and in my view never should be, a disregard for the importance of NSIRA's review function. We cannot have a culture of resistance or reluctance to respond to review requirements."

The notes also cite the Privy Council Office's desire for all parties to commit to a "greater level of engagement at the senior management level" to address strategic issues and advance relationships.

"This includes solidifying communications between NSIRA and PCO, which has a team dedicated to co-ordinating across all departments on horizontal and strategic issues that arise during reviews."

The notes say the intelligence community had made progress in ensuring the review agency has access to departmental information holdings. In some cases, this has included creating stand-alone computer enclaves for review agency analysts to work within, or allowing for on-site validation exercises with staff from both organizations present.

"Departments now issue responses to all NSIRA recommendations, and PCO monitors and reports on the implementation status of recommendations."

Asked about the notes, the intelligence review agency said it continues to engage with members of the security community "to ensure appropriate responsiveness and access to relevant materials needed for our work."

Details on progress and remaining concerns will be discussed in the review agency's coming annual report.

Pierre-Alain Bujold, a PCO spokesman, said the central agency welcomes review of security activities "and understands that accountability for, and transparency in carrying out, these activities builds public trust."

He noted the most recent federal budget earmarks $53 million for departments and agencies with security and intelligence mandates, saying it will help them fulfil their obligations to comply with legislated review requirements in a timely manner, and to implement recommendations.

"All Canadians will ultimately benefit from increased accountability and transparency of national security and intelligence activities," Bujold said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2023.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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