Newly released documents say the intelligence community’s relationship with its main watchdog has been particularly strained over the past year due to the “level of resistance” to surveillance.
The review appears in brief documents prepared for Canada’s top civil servant ahead of a meeting in late January with the chairman of the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency.
The notes were released to the Canadian Press in response to a request by the Privy Council Office under the Access to Information Act.
This is just the latest sign of serious tension between the spy watchdog and the federal intelligence agencies it oversees.
It follows the recent release of intelligence review agency files complaining about a culture within the Media Security Agency about “resisting and obstructing” independent review, frustrating efforts to ensure that cyber espionage services comply with the law.
The latest note comes as the RCMP is investigating leaks of classified information to the media – including details of Canadian Security Intelligence Agency reports – related to allegations of Chinese foreign interference. into Canadian political affairs.
In January, national security adviser Jody Thomas sent a memo to Privy Council Secretary Janice Charette informing her ahead of a meeting with the chair of the intelligence assessment agency, known as NSIRA .
“The President considers that there is still a degree of resistance to NSIRA reviews and may seek your assistance in enhancing the culture of review with Government of Canada departments and agencies, ” wrote the memo.
Created in 2019, NSIRA is an independent agency that reports to Congress, assessing all federal national security and intelligence activities to ensure they are lawful, reasonable, and necessary. It also investigates complaints from the public regarding national security agencies and operations.
The underlying documents accompanying the memo from Thomas say that the rating agency’s relationships with many organizations “have been challenging.”
Contributing factors include the need for the department to adapt to the new assessment requirements without additional resources, as well as NSIRA’s broad interpretation of its mission and the methods it uses. it did, the docs said.
They added that chair Marie Deschamps, a former Supreme Court justice, recently met with Thomas and acknowledged that adapting to new assessment methods takes time and that “the culture of review is improving.” in the security and intelligence community.
The preface to the proposed “talking points” for Charette, as she prepared to meet Deschamps, noted that ministers and delegates were “surprised at the topics raised and the level of detail with which the subject mattered. panel discussion in bilateral discussions.”
Charette was advised to tell Deschamps that the Privy Council Office and the entire security and intelligence community had recognized the importance of independent, external review.
“I know that, from the community’s point of view, departmental relationships with NSIRA have been particularly strained over the past year,” the proposed discussion points read.
“I can assure you that these relationship difficulties are not and in my opinion should never be underestimated the importance of NSIRA’s evaluation function. We cannot have a culture of reflection. resistance or reluctance to respond to assessment requests.”
The notes also cite the Privy Council Office’s desire for all parties to commit to “a higher level of engagement at senior management” to address strategic issues and foster relationships relationship.
“This includes strengthening communication between NSIRA and the PCO, where there is a dedicated team that coordinates across all departments on strategic and horizontal issues that arise during the review process.”
The notes say that the intelligence community has made progress in ensuring the review agency has access to departmental information. In some cases, this includes creating independent computer areas for review agency analysts to work within or allowing on-site validation tests to be performed in the presence of of employees from both organizations.
“Departments now provide responses to all NSIRA recommendations, and the PCO monitors and reports on the status of implementation of the recommendations.”
When 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 documents.” necessary for our work.”
Details of progress and remaining concerns will be discussed in the review body’s upcoming annual report.
Pierre-Alain Bujold, a spokesman for the PCO, said the central agency welcomes the review of security operations “and understands that accountability and transparency in implementation, these activities will create build public trust.”
He noted the most recent federal budget earmarked $53 million for ministries and agencies with security and intelligence duties, saying that would help them fulfill their obligation to comply with review requirements under the law. decisions in a timely manner and implement recommendations.
“All Canadians will ultimately benefit from increased accountability and transparency of national security and intelligence operations,” Bujold said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 5, 2023.