Canadian Liberals introduce spy watchdog bill

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Canadian lawmakers are seeking to legislate more oversight of Canada's secretive spy agencies, arguing that citizens don't know enough about what they're doing.

Bill C-551 (the National Security Committee of Parliamentarians Act), calls for a mixture of MPs and senators to review policies and operations of all federal departments relating to national security. Introduced by Wayne Easter, the Liberal MP for Maleque, on Prince Edward Island, the bill accompanied an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen. Easter called the existing oversight mechanism "reactive".

John Adams, the former head of Canadian spy agency Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) from 2005-2012, called for regular parliamentary scrutiny last month. He made the comments in an interview with the Globe and Mail amid allegations that the agency has been spying on the government of Brazil.

Others have also called for more independent scrutiny of Canadian spy agencies' activities. The other Canadian spy watchdog is the Security Intelligence Review Committee. Its head, former Conservative cabinet minister Chuck Strahl, also called for stricter oversight in an interview last week.

Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian also issued a statement supporting the bill.

In his 2012-2013 annual report, Commissioner Robert Décary of the Communications Security Establishment, admitted that absence of records in a CSEC database limited his ability to assess the lawfulness of its actions. It could also affect the review of other CSEC activities, he said.

The bill opens up useful debate, said David Christopher, spokesperson for online advocacy group Open Media, which is campaigning for more scrutiny of spy agencies.

“Bill C-551 looks like a positive step forward,” he said. “It's important that we have proactive oversight of CSEC and other spy agencies. Other jurisdictions have this oversight and Canada deserves the same.”
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