April 08, 2010
Panel could review Afghan detainee documents: experts, Sun Mar. 21 2010
The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — Setting up a special committee of senior parliamentarians to examine sensitive documents about Afghan detainees could help defuse a brewing political crisis over access to the information, intelligence experts say.
The appointment of former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci to review memos on the possible torture of prisoners in Afghanistan marks the third time the Conservative government has turned to an outsider to review a significant security-related matter.
Iacobucci also studied the role of federal officials in the overseas torture of three Arab-Canadians, and fellow former high court judge John Major is leading an inquiry into the Air India bombing.
Meanwhile, a 2005 federal blueprint for a national security committee of parliamentarians has been all but ignored.
The committee, based largely on one in Britain, would be composed of MPs and senators empowered to examine Canada's security and intelligence community as well as specific files referred by the government.
Information that could endanger the safety of people or jeopardize an operation would be withheld, and material from international allies would be provided to members only with consent of those parties.
Members would swear an oath of secrecy about classified information they see. Existing Commons and Senate committees on security are generally not entrusted to see secret material.
But neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives, who took power four years ago, have moved ahead with the idea of a more robust national security committee.
The opposition parties are pressing for full access to documents about the detainee transfers, saying they will help explain what politicians and military commanders knew about the affair. The questions have simmered since diplomat-whistleblower Richard Colvin's allegations last year that most prisoners Canada transferred to Afghan custody were subsequently tortured.
"I think, if anything, the Colvin affair makes the need for a parliamentary committee even more necessary than before," said Stuart Farson, an adjunct professor of political science at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
While such political oversight committees don't always work perfectly, there is a role for them, said Paul Robinson, a professor in the graduate school of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former military intelligence officer
"In circumstances like this it could provide a mechanism which would allow you to move forward," said Robinson, a former military intelligence officer.
"I think there's a good case for government taking senior people from the opposition into confidence on certain issues.
"Since these are potentially future leaders of the country there's no national security reason why they should not be."
Even though members of Parliament would not be allowed to discuss the content of what they see behind closed doors about the detainee affair, the exercise would still be useful, Farson said.
"I don't think there's an obligation of anybody, even of Parliament, to make documents public. What the obligation is, is to hold the government to account for what's in those documents," he said.
"This issue is about accountability of government actions and people taking responsibility for those actions."
There have been suggestions the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the civilian watchdog over the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, would be well-placed to look at the detainee documents and determine whether the government is hiding anything that should be public.
Robinson says that's really not SIRC's job -- its legal mandate is limited to keeping an eye on CSIS.
Pointing to the United States, he says there is no solid evidence that opposition politicians entrusted with intelligence secrets spill them to the media.
"When you look at where most leaks come from, they come from the government."
In any event, both Farson and Robinson say they're skeptical that there are any genuine national security secrets in the detainee documents.
Allowing security-cleared parliamentarians to study pressing intelligence matters would complement the work of review bodies such as SIRC and would spur interest among MPs and senators in the national security file, said Farson.
Last year the Commons committee on public safety and national security urged the government to support creation of a full-fledged parliamentary security panel.
In its October response, the government said this would "be given due consideration in the context of the development of an enhanced national security review framework."
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews recently reiterated that the government is waiting for Major's report on the 1985 Air India attack before taking steps to overhaul intelligence oversight.
Critics have accused the government of stalling, noting the commission that looked into the Maher Arar torture affair outlined a comprehensive model for keeping watch over the national security activities of the RCMP and other federal agencies more than three years ago.
Farson says the government has little interest in such reforms. "I think it's almost non-existent."
"The impression one gets is that they're basically not interested," he said.
"I don't see any willingness to budge on this. If they do budge it will be the minimum required to keep off the political pressure."
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