I know, I know — three committees in one day? What can I say — ITQ believes in making up for lost time — and after a month and a half of Oliphantics, we did have a parliamentary deficit to pay off. Anyway, as previewed in yesterday’s lookahead, Auditor General Sheila Fraser is at Public Accounts this afternoon to talk about her March 2009 status report on intelligence and information sharing within – and between – law enforcement agencies. Fraser found the government’s progress to be “slow but satisfactory”, but somehow, ITQ suspects that may not be good enough for the opposition.
Breaking news: They have *cookies* over at Finance! I took a short cut through the Reading Room on my way here – there were tour groups to avoid — and was almost — but not quite — tempted to stick around for the imminent grilling of the assembled credit and debit card companies over their possibly close to usurious interest and user fees, but I managed to resist the lure of an open snackbar, and am now perched just behind the witnesses, which means that all I can give you in the way of colour at the moment is that Sheila Fraser is wearing a very springish green. I do wish we could see witnesses’ faces.
And here we go – committee chair Shawn Murphy does the roll call — nine witnesses, including representatives from PCO, the RCMP, Public Safety and Transport.
Oh, and in case you didn’t click through to the full status report, as helpfully linked above, this was a followup to the AG’s 2003 audit of information and intelligence sharing; this time round, she says, she found “satisfactory” progress in eight of twelve areas.
One of the unsatisfactory areas, Fraser notes, was the continuing failure to balance privacy and information sharing — the various legal barriers have not yet been addressed, and there is no direction forthcoming from the government. Also, the RCMP and Transport are keeping information from each other, which means that the latter may be giving clearance to “high risk individuals” to work in secure and sensitive areas. Paging the Kenney-Baird parliamentary security team!
Since March 2009, she says, the two organizations have signed a Memorandum of Understanding, but her office hasn’t had the chance to review it.
Next up with an opening statement is the PM’s national security advisor, Marie-Lucie Morin, who thanks the committee for the opportunity to discuss the government’s “achievements”, although she acknowledges that “some challenges remain” – the same that are faced by all democracies – in balancing security with the rights of Canadians.
But first, a few words about the “threat environment”. I’ll spare you the details; Al Qeyda, various other organizations “actively engaging in terrorism” and an “increasingly sophisticated cyberthreat”, which is used to “plan and execute” attacks. Also, weapons of mass destruction! Canada cannot be complacent.
Apparently, we’re lucky that we can establish a coherent, cohesive policy “in a single room” – the US has seventeen separate agencies to consult. Given the number of witnesses who made it to this meeting, I’d hope it was a big room, but she assures members that there is a “robust” committee structure — she means interdepartmental, not parliamentary — on the job.
Public Safety Deputy Minister Suzanne Hurtbuise, whose name the chair seems to find surprisingly tricky to pronounce, gives *her* opening statement – enhancing information sharing, the “secret communications interoperability report”, that sort of thing – for far less time than the preceding witnesses. For some reason, at this point, the NDP’s David Christopherson pipes up with a demand that the clerk get a copy of her presentation and pass it out to MPs immediately; this, for some reason, causes much consternation on the part of both the committee staff and the witness. Hurtubuise seems baffled by the persistence of Christopherson’s request; her counterpart over at Transport – Louis Ranger, who seems to have been cast in the role of Good Deputy Minister/Witness for the moment, at least, assures the committee that they have spare copies, which mollifies Christopherson somewhat.
He then delivers *his* opening statement – first, a brief explanation of the main security issues, and then the highlights of what the department has done to enhance the clearance process. There is also, you will all be comforted to know, an action plan.
As Ranger describes some of the improvements resulting from the MoU mentioned by the AG earlier – they’re going to review all clearances – the committee staff are hustling around the table, handing out copies of the opening statements.
Finally, RCMP deputy commissioner Tim Killam tells the committee that the O’Connor report – well, its recommendations, that is – is at the centre of their policy transformation, and also praises the MoU. Apparently, they also need the support of “all Canadians’ to get the job done, and no, I have no idea what he means by that. It also sounds as though this is the first chance he’s had to read the paper he’s holding in his hands; he seems oddly nervous and defensive, actually. Has he been on the front line defence over at the Braidwood hearings?
And – questions! Starting with Yasmin Ratansi, who asks the AG what risks are posed by the continuing lack of external oversight – the Maher Arar case, she notes, being the most infamous example. She also wants to know what lessons the various departments and agencies have learned from the Maher Arar case, as well as the Air India and other inquiries.
Fraser concurs that the RCMP public complaints commission is “limited”, as far as its capacity to provide oversight, and Ratansi wonders which one of the other witnesses will go first in responding to the *second* part of her question. Turns out its Killam – I guess he’s used to looking chagrined and apologetic – who reiterates his little speech about how very, very much the O’Connor report has been taken to heart.
Ranger also gives it a go, as it transpires, although Ratansi is openly sceptical, as far as the issue of clearance – she refers to the Air India “accident” more than once – but also privacy.
Over to the Bloc’s Meille Faille, who quizzes Morin on “cyberthreats” — no, I haven’t managed to catch the French translation for that — and wonders what is being done to monitor communications systems, as well as the reliability of information, and confidentiality. Morin tells her that these “cyberthreats” are against government in general, as well as industry and the private sector. Wow, could she vague that up a little? Anyway, she doesn’t want to give *specific* examples of attacks that may have occured, but she notes that the world will become “more and more cyberfocused”. Faille patiently explains that she understands what “cyberthreat” means; she wants more information – has National Defence faced such threats in the last year? What about Afghanistan? Morin, somewhat waspishly, throws the hot potato — I was going to say “grenade”, but that seemed somehow inappropriate — to Ranger: Maybe *he* could tell the committee about airports, she suggests. Any of you get the feeling that the other witnesses are sort of ganging up on this poor guy?
And why do I suddenly feel oddly protective of the deputy minister of transport, of all people? I’d forgotten how strange committee dynamics can be.
Meille Faille keeps trying to get Morin to give her answers, with little success; at one point, the PM’s security advisor breezily suggests that the committee call in witnesses from the Canada Border Services Agency, rather than let the deputy minister for Public Safety – the responsible department – take the question.
Christopherson wants to know just who decided that it wasn’t Transport Canada’s job to prevent high risk offenders from working in airports, although Ranger tries to explain that this is no longer the cae; eventually, his assistant deputy minister, Marc Gregoire, comes to his rescue, and butters Christopherson up with a reference to the excellence of his question — oh, don’t fall for that, David. Fraser eventually seizes the floor, and points out that actually, Transport Canada is in charge of preventing “unlawful interference with civilian airlines”, not *necessarily* criminal activities taking place at airports. Okay, actually, that makes sense; the criminal activities would presumably be under the aegis of the RCMP.
Christopherson is also a bit confused – not unreasonably – by the many layers of agreements between the various departments and agencies, some of which seem to have been cancelled. Eventually, he gets a somewhat up to date list, although Killam admits that there is “no consensus” on when to start a criminal investigation — between CSIS and the RCMP, that is.
Over to the government side, where Andrew Saxton asks what is either the most profound, or simplistic question of the day: Are we safer now than in 2001? After a quick acknowledgement of the scariness that is the very notion of North Korea testing nukes, Morin tells him that from *her* perspective, we are. Saxton asks for the highlights, as far as progress, and she drones on for a while – sorry, but she *is* – although at one point, she does praise the Westminster system for its focus on accountability.
Finally, Saxton gets the AG to repeat her cautious optimism at the prospect of CSIS and the RCMP working together – which she does.
A female Liberal MP who I don’t recognize, and whose nameplate is at just the wrong angle to read from here, wants to know more about funding for analysis, I think – and the secret communications operability project, which is apparently “underfunded”. Fraser suggests she ask Hurtubise, who explains that her department was charged with finding ways to share information at the secret level; the system has been tested, and they know that it is operational, so it is ready to be implemented — if, that is, there is a desire to do so. Oh, and there’s an MoU, so you know she’s serious.
Daryl Kramp, you’ll all be pleased to know, is super-extra-thrilled by all the progress that has made, and seems especially impressed with Morin: we are steadily adapting to challenges. What he wants to know, though, is the state of communications between all these agencies – both policy and technology. “Are we up to snuff?”
According to Hurtubise, we *do* have the above mentioned-at-length interoperability program ready to roll out — if the will is there, of course — as well a “world standard” telecommunications capacity. What is required is for “everyone to be on the same wave length” — isn’t that basically the definition of communications interoberability? And she didn’t even say “no pun intended” – but Kramp is somewhat fixated on the MoUs — he loves them, but at the same time, he worries that he’s putting too much faith in departments respecting them. Fraser notes that one of the big issues, still, is privacy — it’s a “fundamental” concern that has to be addressed.
The Bloc’s Roger Pomerleau just doesn’t understand why the RCMP can’t share information, and – he doesn’t actually seem to have a question, he just wants to expound on the ridiculousness of claiming that there isn’t criminal infiltration of Canadian airports. Eventually, he pauses for breath, and Killam acknowledges that a review of secure areas did find some individuals with criminal ties, but they’ve since been able to provide the *right* information to Transport Canada, to ensure that these clearances were “suitable”. He’s happy with the current system – he thinks they’re safer.
Back to the government side – and Bev Shipley, who wonders about coordination within the Government Operations Centre, and the MoUs, and — seriously, did whoever came up with the talking points for the Conservatives have a bet going with his or her coworkers on how many times they could work “MoU” into a question?
“I think you raise an interesting point,” Shipley says, after a lengthy reply from Hurtubise on the quiet successes of the Government Operations Centre, which ITQ will confess to never having heard of before this afternoon. Unfortunately, he’s wrong, but he does touch on the issue of vacancies — is that due to the departmebt having fallen behind because they’re trying to save money, or a lack of qualified individuals – or is it simply a complex process? The latter, it turns out – that is courtesy of Guylaine Dansereau, with the RCMP, who fields that softball, if that isn’t a heinous abuse of a sports metaphor.
Back to Christopherson, who once again wants to point to the lack of external review, as well as the “watchlists” — he’s spitting page numbers at the witnesses, but since I don’t have the report handy, that’s not much help. When he finishes, the witnesses, to a one, are silent. “Don’t all speak at once,” he jokes, and they laugh, but awkwardly.
Morin is the first to crack under his friendly, but unwavering stare, and delivers a lightly remixed version of her opening statement: basically, things are getting better, although it is, of course, “complex”.
Hurtubise notes that much work has been done to improve the review process – Christopherson reminds her that actually, it is the *independence* of the external review that concerns him – and she manages to acknowledge his clarification without letting it cramp her style, at least as far as her insistence that the recommendations of the O’Connor report have been taken very, very seriously – just as seriously it will eventually take those in the Air India report, once the government has taken it under advisement.
You know, I started to liveblog John Weston’s question in good faith, until I realized that it was a barely tweaked version of the same one that every other Conservative to speak so far has asked.
Before moving onto the next – and hopefully final – round, the chair notes that the issue of external oversight of the RCMP has come up repeatedly – at this committee, at various inquries, even from the commissioner himself, who has acknowledged the need for more of it — yet nothing seems to happen. Killam agrees – the RCMP would welcome more oversight, he tells the committee – but both he and Hurtubise – the latter more defensively, it’s fair to say – insist that considerable work is being done. When Murphy asks for some sort of timeline, she notes that it is, of course, ultimately up to the government, and points to the need to wait for the results of the Air India inquiry.
Yasmin Ratansi still wants to know why there are Canadians sitting in jail in Sudan – there was a preamble, but I’ve spared you; I don’t just ignore repetitive government members, you know. Morin goes off on another wildly nonspecific tangent about the need to look at the global context, but does note that the case in question is before the courts.
Okay, can no one here pronounce “Hurtbuise”? She’s been around for ages — surely this isn’t the first time these MPs have had to twist their respective tongues around her name. Anyway, Ratansi *still* wants to know if the real reason why the secret comm inoperability project hasn’t been finalized is because the government won’t pay for it, and Hurtubise – EEEhrt-ouih-bee, I think – explains that there was money set aside for the pilot project; now it’s up for the government to decide whether to go ahead with it.
Courtesy of Terence Young, we get a brief explanation of biometrics – there is much Philip K. Dick-esque scanning, although as yet, no pilot precrime program – and a question about the organizational structure surrounding Morin’s office.
And – oh, apparently that’s it for the witnesses, although there are apparently just a few items left on the to-do list before the committee can adjourn, and ITQ can scamper off into the sunset.
Oh, for heaven’s sake — Andrew Saxton has an inexplicable – at least to ITQ, and to anyone who hasn’t been following the micropermutations of this committee over the last month or so – motion that I will type out in full, for the edification of all, as the chair whips through some housekeeping issues:
That, notwithstanding the motion adopted on May 12, 200c9, the Department of Public Works and Government Services not be forced to break the law in order to please members of the opposition who voted in favour of the May 12 motion forcing the Department of Public Works and Government Services to ignore the privacy concerns of Canadians in relation to the deposit of audiocassettes requestd at the meeting of March 24, 2009;
That the Department of Public Works and Government Services be given the time needed to respect its obligation under the Privacy Act.
So — basically, the government is getting snitty about an opposition-backed motion involving audio tapes. I’m not currently able to check the committee website for the details of this mysterious May 12 meeting, but maybe they’ll explain in more detail when this motion comes to a vote.
Okay, the relatively noncontentious items on the agenda having been dealt with, it’s on to the Saxton motion – with, thanks to a kindheated NDP staffer who shall remain nameless for his own protection – has to do with a series of meetings between Public Works and unnamed government consultants, which were taped; the chair calls it “argumentative”, which Saxton denies — he just wants to ensure the department can respect the Privacy Act, which requires it to protect personal information unless it gets the consent of the individuals.
“We don’t have a problem” with requesting the tapes, Saxton insists — they just want to respect the law. The chair notes, in passing, that the clerk has the opposite view, as far as the legality of the initial request, and Christopherson accuses the government of attempting to bring about double jeopardy, and nullifying a motion that has already been passed by the committee, fair and square.
According to the chair, his research shows that the Privacy Act is totally irrelevant to this situation, although “someone at Public Works” seems to feel differently; apparently, as of this afternoon, the department *has* provided some of the tapes – although there’s no way to know if they’ve been altered, since the audio was transferred to DVD, and not all of it has been made available. “There are eighteen minutes missing,” Christopherson jokes.
John Weston brings a novel argument to the table — if these tapes may involve something that could lead to a criminal investigation, the committee really shouldn’t review them at all, because – well, it’s not totally clear why, but it doesn’t matter, because Christopherson helpfully recaps the behind-the-scenes events that have brought us to this point; he notes that Faille made several attempts to persuade the committee to support her initial motion, which led to a series of blockades being thrown up by the department — it’s all starting to make him a bit curious about what, exactly, they’re hiding. “Suddenly, we’re getting a major federal case,” he notes. This spurs Murphy to read aloud from – is that Marleau or Montpetit? I can’t tell from here – from a procedural bible, then, on the right of committee to subpoena documents.
With that, he puts the motion to a vote, and it fails. “Coalition again,” grumbles Kramp.
On that note, the committee adjourns. “What’s on the tapes?” wonders one Conservative MP, in passing, to ITQ – who is herself in the midst of asking Meille Faille exactly the same question. It turns out that nobody really knows – it has something to do with the Auditor General’s report on IT procurement – but according to the government members, it’s not that they’re trying to block the tapes – no conspiracy here, honest! – but they don’t want to run afoul of the Privacy Act. Which does not, of course, apply to parliamentary committees, as far as ITQ knows, but that isn’t the point – at least, not for them — they just don’t want to break the law.