OTTAWA — Newly released documents suggest the intelligence agencies’ relationship with their top watchdog has been particularly strained over the past year due to a “degree of resistance” to scrutiny.
That assessment appears in briefing materials prepared for Canada’s top officials ahead of a late January meeting with the President of the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (OSSNR).
The notes were released to the Canadian Press in response to a request to the Privy Council Office (PCO) under the Access to Information Act.
This is the latest indication of serious tensions between the espionage regulator and the federal intelligence agencies it controls.
This follows the recent release of Intelligence Oversight documents lamenting a culture within Communications Security Establishment Canada of “resistance and obstruction” to independent oversight that is frustrating efforts to ensure the cyberespionage service complies with the law.
The latest memos come as part of an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police into leaking classified information to the media – including details of reports by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – about alleged Chinese interference in Canada’s political affairs.
In January, National Security Advisor Jody Thomas sent a memo to Privy Council Secretary Janice Charette advising her ahead of a meeting with the National Security and Information Director.
“The President believes that there remains a level of opposition to OSSNR’s review activities and may seek your assistance in improving the review culture within Canadian government departments and agencies,” the memo said.
Established in 2019, the OSSNR is an independent agency reporting to Parliament that reviews all federal national security and intelligence activities to ensure they are lawful, appropriate and necessary. It also investigates public complaints about national security agencies and activities.
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Background documents to Jody Thomas’ memo say the agency has had “difficult” dealings with many organizations.
Factors contributing to this include the need for departments to adapt to new verification requirements without additional resources, as well as OSSNR’s broad interpretation of its mandate and the approaches it has taken. , the documents say.
They add that Chairwoman Marie Deschamps, a former Supreme Court Justice, recently met with Ms Thomas and acknowledged that adapting to new vetting practices takes time and that “the vetting culture” in the country is changing within the security and intelligence community improve.
In a foreword to the “talking points” proposed by Ms Charette as she prepared to meet Marie Deschamps, Ministers and MEPs said “the issues raised and the level of detail discussed by the President during the bilateral talks has, were surprised”.
Ms Charette was instructed to tell Ms Deschamps that PCO and the wider security and intelligence community recognize the importance of independent external verification.
“I am aware that the ministry’s relationship with the OSSNR has been particularly strained over the past year from a community perspective,” the suggested talking points read.
“I can assure you that these relationship difficulties are not, and in my view should never be, a disregard for the importance of OSSNR’s verification function. We cannot sustain a culture of resistance or reluctance to meet exam requirements.”
The memos also cite PCO’s desire for all parties to commit to “a higher level of engagement at the senior management level” to address strategic issues and move the relationship forward.
“This includes consolidating communications between the OSSNRS and the PCO, which has a team dedicated to cross-departmental coordination of horizontal and strategic issues arising from reviews.”
The notes say the intelligence community has made progress in ensuring the review panel has access to the department’s information assets. In some cases, this has included the establishment of stand-alone IT cells for testing agency analysts to work in, or the possibility of on-site validation exercises with staff from both organizations present.
“The departments now publish responses to all OSSNRS recommendations and the PCO monitors and reports on the status of the implementation of the recommendations.”
When asked about the assessment, the intelligence agency said it continues to work with members of the security community “to ensure appropriate responsiveness and access to relevant documents required for our work.”
Details of progress and remaining concerns will be discussed in the verifier’s next annual report.
A BCP spokesman, Pierre-Alain Bujold, said the central authority welcomes the review of security activities “and understands that accountability and transparency in the conduct of these activities builds public confidence”.
Noting that the most recent federal budget earmarked $53 million for departments and agencies with security and intelligence mandates, he said this will help them meet their obligations to meet legislative screening requirements in a timely manner and implement recommendations.
“Ultimately, all Canadians will benefit from increased accountability and transparency in national security and intelligence activities,” Mr. Bujold said.
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