The Canadian government is currently reviewing the national security framework and is soliciting public comment. I’ve decided to post my comments publicly, in the hopes of spurring discussion and providing model comments for others to riff off of.
If you care about limiting government spy powers and government accountability, I urge you to read the Green Papers and comment yourself.
In Part 1, I cover Accountability, Prevention, and Threat Reduction.
Should existing review bodies – CRCC, OCSEC and SIRC – have greater capacity to review and investigate complaints against their respective agencies?
Yes. The recent revelations about metadata collection show that oversight bodies need to be strengthened. In addition, it may be very useful for review bodies to be allowed (and required) to do some amount of independent investigation, without having to wait for a complaint to be made. Preventative audits of our national security services would help increase Canadian’s faith in these services.
Should the existing review bodies be permitted to collaborate on reviews?
Yes. This seems in line with the government’s moves to strengthen interdepartmental cooperation and prevent useful information from being siloed.
Should the Government introduce independent review mechanisms of other departments and agencies that have national security responsibilities, such as the CBSA?
This seems the most reasonable way to ensure adequate civilian and parliamentary oversight of all agencies dealing with national security. Given that national security agencies are now able to collaborate much more easily, it makes sense for oversight to be broadened beyond those organizations that have traditionally had oversight.
While existing oversight agencies could expand their mandates as a stopgap measure, it seems likely to be more effective to spin up new agencies for this task. Or, if there are clear cost saving to have in amalgamating review agencies, funding and staffing must be increased to allow adequate oversight. An oversight body without adequate staff is a useless oversight body.
The proposed committee of parliamentarians will have a broad mandate to examine the national security and intelligence activities of all departments and agencies. In light of this, is there a need for an independent review body to look at national security activities across government, as Commissioner O’Connor recommended?
There is something to be said for a well-trained group of bureaucrats who are able to monitor an agency for a long period of time and build up specific expertise in that task. Due to the constantly shifting nature of parliament, an independent, arms-length agency empowered to monitor national security agencies and report on them to parliament has serious merit as a supplementary measure to any parliamentary committee. A permanent organization would also allow oversight to be maintained during transitions of power between governments and would alleviate the gap in effective oversight we would expect every time the responsibility falls to a new batch of MPs.
The Government has made a commitment to require a statutory review of the ATA, 2015 after three years. Are other measures needed to increase parliamentary accountability for this legislation?
Statutory review must involve members of parliament from all major parties, with adequate security clearances to review non-redacted documentation. If statutory review meets these standards, then it would represent acceptable accountability.
The Government would like your views about what shape a national strategy to counter radicalization to violence should take. In particular, it is looking to identify policy, research and program priorities for the Office of the community outreach and counter-radicalization coordinator. What should the priorities be for the national strategy?
Counter-radicalization programs must be based in the community and must have the trust of members of the community. They cannot exist in an environment which has punitive penalties for merely holding radical beliefs; if parents or friends believe that approaching the authorities for help will lead to their friend or loved one being arrested, they will be much less likely to. Programs that allow family members or friends to report radicalized individuals without worry that there will be negative involvement with the Criminal Justice System will always be much more effective in gaining the trust of the community.
In addition, programs should focus on the breadth of ways that individuals can become radicalized. Too narrow a focus (i.e. focusing just on radical Islam) can leave parents or friends struggling with individuals radicalized into other ideologies (like white supremacy).
Finally, counter-radicalization programs should involve formerly radicalized individuals who have become disillusioned with their radical viewpoints. These individuals are ideally positioned to both explain the errors in radical narratives and show how reintegration into mainstream communities is possible.
What should the role of the Government be in efforts to counter radicalization to violence?
The government should create space in the criminal code for counter-radicalization programs to work, perhaps by allowing individuals to avoid the threat of charges if they participate (or, when criminal convictions are made, using discharges conditional on completion of such a program in lieu of incarceration). In addition, the government should develop model programs and recommended strategies and provide funding for cities to run radicalization programs. As a last resort, the federal government should be willing to step in when a province or municipality cannot or will not provide a counter-radicalization program. Finally, the government should support research into the most effective counter-radicalization strategies and seek to make Canada a centre of excellence in counter-radicalization research.
Research and experience has shown that working with communities is the most effective way to prevent radicalization to violence. How can the Government best work with communities? How can tensions between security concerns and prevention efforts be managed?
The government must give assurances that in all cases (except imminent attacks or clear intent to join a foreign militant group), anyone referred to a counter-radicalization program will not face consequences with the criminal justice system. Parents shouldn’t be torn between desire to help their children and keep their children out of jail.
The government must acknowledge that perfect safety isn’t attainable. Counter-radicalization programs will always present more of a short-term risk than arrest. But it is important that the government be willing to stay the course on counter-radicalization to reap the long-term benefits of reduced radicalization that programs that win the trust of communities can bring.
Efforts to counter radicalization to violence cannot be one size fits all. Different communities have different needs and priorities. How can the Office identify and address these particular needs? What should be the priorities in funding efforts to counter radicalization to violence?
Funding should be given to communities on a flexible basis, to allow each community to adapt to the most pressing local concerns. What’s a problem in Brantford, ON and Moncton, NB are probably very different and each municipality will need the flexibility to meet its own unique challenges. That said, the Office must be willing to demand a minimum standard of all programs and ensure that programs exist for commonly occurring narratives (e.g. white supremacy, radical Islam) everywhere those narratives exist.
Radicalization to violence is a complex, evolving issue. It is important for research to keep pace. Which areas of research should receive priority? What further research do you think is necessary?
Randomized controlled trials of different counter-radicalization methods are necessary to ensure that only methods that actually work are used. While experimenting with something so important may sound callous or naive, the fact of the matter is that we don’t fully understand which programs work best (or work at all). Determining which methods are most effective will net huge long-term gains.
What information and other tools do you need to help you prevent and respond to radicalization to violence in your community?
A public directory or website (e.g. radicalization.gc.ca) with information about all local programs, Canada-wide, generic counter-radicalization resources, and a 24/7 hotline number would be very useful.
CSIS’s threat reduction mandate was the subject of extensive public debate during the passage of Bill C-51, which became the ATA, 2015. Given the nature of the threats facing Canada, what scope should CSIS have to reduce these threats?
While I can see the appeal of giving CSIS the ability to act directly to reduce clear and present threats, I remain worried that CSIS lacks appropriate expertise in direct action. Therefore, I believe that CSIS should be returned to its traditional mandate, with threat disruption left to organizations like the RCMP with much more experience in expertise in disrupting criminal activities.
The threat of terrorism shouldn’t be treated as a special class of crime onto itself. It’s a crime like any other and we already have tools to deal with crime. Terrorism isn’t worth letting intelligence agencies be active domestically. Law-enforcement is far more accountable to the people and therefore should be preferred.
Are the safeguards around CSIS’s threat reduction powers sufficient to ensure that CSIS uses them responsibly and effectively? If current safeguards are not sufficient, what additional safeguards are needed?
Ultimately, CSIS is less accountable to the public than law enforcement because so much of what it does is classified. If you can’t tell people about it, then people can’t tell you if they think it’s a problem.
I appreciate that the nature of the classified information CSIS deals with makes public oversight and reports like Canadians exercise over police impossible. I wonder if more effective oversight could be achieved by giving all parliamentarians the security classification necessary to review CSIS’s actions. MPs could then raise troubling actions during question period or directly to the public, (with classified and identifying details redacted, of course).
The Government has committed to ensuring that all CSIS activities comply with the Charter. Should subsection 12.1(3) of the CSIS Act be amended to make it clear that CSIS warrants can never violate the Charter? What alternatives might the Government consider?
Yes. As long as CSIS’s activities are classified, it is always possible that they will violate the charter, as was seen recently with metadata collection. Making it explicit that they may not violate the charter (and rely on their classified status to escape the ire of Canadians) would be a strong signal to CSIS that it must act in accordance with our shared democratic values.