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New National Security Oversight committee likely to cost more than any other House or Senate security committees

By Abbas Rana      

The National Security Oversight Committee, which was promised by the Liberals in the last election campaign, will be the first of its kind in Canada. But opposition critics say it's off to a rocky start.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale introduced the legislation to create the Special National Security Oversight Committee, but it will report directly to the prime minister. The Hill Time photograph by Jake Wright
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The upcoming special National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians will likely be more expensive in its initial setup and annual operating costs compared to any other House and Senate national security-related committees, according to Public Safety documents.

The National Security Oversight Committee, which was promised by the Liberals in the last election campaign and will be the first of its kind in Canada, will review, monitor, and scrutinize the work of the country’s most secret intelligence agencies, including CSIS, the RCMP, the CSE, and the CBSA. No such committee exists now, which still makes Canada “the only nation among its Five Eyes allies whose elected officials cannot scrutinize security operations. This leaves the public uninformed and unrepresented on critical issues,” said the Liberals’ campaign platform.

According to documents obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin, who asked for estimates, records, terms of reference, instructions, and consultation exchanges related to setting up the National Security Oversight Committee, the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness released a heavily redacted 81-page document. In it, estimates indicate that it could cost about $500,000 for the alteration of a room to be used for the committee’s work as well as the annual operating expenses of the committee.

The estimated cost does not include the cost of security clearances for Parliamentarians and staffers, the cost of setting up a secretariat, the salaries of all support staffers and other expenses. Of the $500,000, $224,286.99 is estimated to alter a room in one of the Parliament Buildings to meet the committee’s needs and $258,000 is the partial annual estimated operating cost.

One document indicates that the “primary security costs associated with creating NSCOP [National Security Committee of Parliamentarians] would be security clearances and establishing dedicated facilities for the committee to meet and transmit and store information.” All details before and after this sentence are redacted. In the section entitled “Secure Facilities,” the document indicates that it’s mandatory that the National Security Committee conducts its work in a “Top Secret//Special Intelligence (TS//SI) environment. As such, it would require the use of facilities accredited to RCMP signals intelligence secure area (SSA) standards to carry out its work and store information,” the document states. All the subsequent details in this section are blacked out.

It appears the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness and the Privy Council Office are looking at three buildings in the Parliamentary Precinct to choose from as a possible location for the committee meetings. The three buildings under consideration include 1 Wellington St., 151 Sparks St., and 180 Wellington St. One document says Centre Block on Parliament Hill is the preferred location by MPs because of its proximity to the Commons Chamber, but the committee rooms have some technical challenges such as these rooms “cannot videoconference and televise at the same time.”

To come up with an estimate of the annual operating cost of the National Security Oversight Committee, the Department of Public Safety and the Privy Council Office have been looking at the annual costs of the House Public Safety and National Security Committee, House National Defence Committee, and the Senate’s National Security and Defence committees. Both departments are also looking at the annual costs of intelligence oversight committees in the U.K., the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. According to one document, between 2009-2010, and 2013 and 2014, the annual costs of the House and Senate national security related committees ranged between $8,520 and $258,720. The five-year average between 2009-2014 for the national security related standing committees was $90,741-$65,048 for travel and $11,764 for witnesses.

In comparison, the annual cost of the Intelligence Oversight Committee in the U.K. is 1.3-million pounds. In the U.S., the Senate Oversight Committee cost is U.S. $2.5-million and the House of Representatives Oversight Committee cost is U.S. $4-million.

The Special National Security and Intelligence Committee, which will be comprised of seven MPs, including four Liberals and three opposition MPs, and two Senators, is not a standing committee. Unlike other House and Senate committees, it will report to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.).

Liberal MP David McGuinty is the chair of the upcoming Special National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Mr. Trudeau appointed five-term Liberal MP David McGuinty (Ottawa South, Ont.) last January to chair the committee. Other members of the committee have not been chosen yet. As chair, Mr. McGuinty will receive an additional salary of $42,000 on top of his regular MP salary of $170,400 while other members of the committee will receive a salary top up of $11,900, the same as chairs of House committees. All committee members will have to secure security clearance and take an oath of secrecy.

Public Safety’s specific answers to questions related to the inner workings of the committee are completely redacted. Some of the questions answered, but entirely blacked out are: the size and structure of the secretariat serving the committee; which entity would employ the secretariat staff; whether or not staff members will be recruited from the existing top security-cleared community or from non top-secret cleared work environment; what the budget of the secretariat will be; the location of the committee’s secure facilities; and whether or not political staff of committee members and who have top secret security clearance will be able to work on the committee.

Prior to the last federal election, the Trudeau Liberals, who were then the third-place party in the House, pledged to establish the National Security Committee of Parliamentarians in response to the then-Stephen Harper government’s controversial Bill C-51, the so-called Anti-Terrorism legislation. The Liberals voted in support of the bill, but promised to repeal controversial sections of C-51 if they were elected to government. They promised a special oversight committee to monitor and examine the work of national security agencies. The Liberals haven’t yet introduced any legislation to repeal sections of Bill C-51.

But Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale (Regina-Wascana, Sask.) introduced Bill C-22 in June to establish the new National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians which is still before Parliament. It’s unclear when it will be passed.

Dan Brien, director of communications to Mr. Goodale, declined to discuss the details of the logistics of the National Security Committee citing the sensitive nature of the work of the committee. He said he could not elaborate further on the information contained in the documents.

The Privy Council Office, the lead department on this file, was not able to comment by deadline.

NDP MP Murray Rankin (Victoria, B.C.) and Conservative MP Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.), both members of the House Public Safety and National Security Committee, said they have not been consulted on the logistics of setting up the committee. But both said they do not believe the new National Security Oversight Committee needs any new securities facilities for holding their closed-door meetings. They said the committee could use the existing facilities used by the RCMP or CSIS to hold its meetings.

“There are facilities around the National Capital Region that would meet the requirements of a committee,” said Mr. Murray. “In order for Parliamentarians to do their job, why couldn’t we use an existing secure facility.”

NDP Murray Rankin is a member of the House Public Safety and National Security Committee. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright 

Mr. Clement said his understanding is that Mr. Trudeau will choose members of the committee after consulting with the opposition party leaders. He said that he was not satisfied with the government’s level of consultation with the opposition parties so far. Mr. Clement said the opposition parties were never consulted prior to the appointment of Mr. McGuinty as the chair of the committee and have no input in working out the mechanics of the oversight committee.

Conservative MP Tony Clement is his party’s critic for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

“It’s not a very good start to the committee,” said Mr. Clement. “I do want to have an open mind if there’s a genuine attempt at cooperation. I will [take part] in a responsible way and as a responsible critic because national security should be, as much as possible, non-partisan.”

The key departments and agencies responsible for Canada’s national security are: the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS); the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP); the Communications Security Establishment (CSE); the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA); Global Affairs Canada; the Department of National Defence; the Department of Justice; the Privy Council Office; and the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.

The Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) conducts after-the-fact reviews of CSIS activities; the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) reviews the RCMP; and the Office of the Communications Security Establishment Commissioner (OCSEC) reviews the Communications Security Establishment. For other departments and agencies there is no external oversight for their national security roles.

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