As the first returns of the US midterm election began to roll in, few would have guessed that the big story of the night would involve a sex-scandal and a Canadian Parliamentarian. The extortion of the Hon. Tony Clement, a former Minister of the Crown, with sexually-explicit images he had shared online is certainly worthy gossip-column content. However, these events should draw our attention to a deeply troubling and pressing debate we, as a nation, should be having regarding how we handle our national security.
As a member of the recently established National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), Mr. Clement had sweeping access to the Nation’s most guarded secrets. To qualify for membership, Mr. Clement had undergone several background checks to receive a top-secret security clearance that came with an oath of secrecy. While it appears Mr. Clement did not compromise Canadian security during any of his online relationships – the extorter only seems to have demanded a payoff of €50,000 – there is a much needed debate regarding the conduct of those we entrust with our national secrets.
Until recently, Canada remained the only member of the Five Eyes security community that lacked legislative oversight of national security activities. Prior to the implementation of the NSICOP, Canada’s intelligence and national security community operated within a black box of the executive branch. Parliament was seldom informed of its activity, and when it was, was provided with mostly redacted information. However, following a slew of civil rights abuses by various agencies including the Omar Khadr case, the Afghan detainee scandal, and the McDonald Commission on Certain Activities of the RCMP, it was rightfully decided that our intelligence and national security community could no longer operate behind a veil of secrecy – transparency was needed. The NSICOP sought to bring together a bipartisan group of experienced MPs and Senators who would be responsible for providing oversight and social licence to our national security agencies.
Certainly, the decision to implement this oversight has come with many trade-offs. While Parliament has more authority to hold the executive branch to account, scrutiny is now carried out behind closed doors. While Parliamentarians are more informed, we risk politicizing our national security. Experts from Canada’s national security community in particular have worried about broadening the circle of individuals who would have access to top-secret information, which as was demonstrated last week, put the country at risk of extortion and leaks.
While the events involving Mr. Clement’s behaviour are a cause for concern, it is premature to cast aside democratic oversight in the name of security. The democratic-good produced by having a more informed and effective Parliament, capable of holding the executive and national security agencies to a higher level of accountability, outweighs the risks of extortion, leaks, and politicization. That said, as the world and the threats we are exposed to continue to change, we must continue having this debate.
In the meantime, immediate action must be taken to prevent similar events from occurring that may jeopardize Canada’s security. In particular, the vetting process for members wishing to serve on the committee must be intensified. The screening process cannot start and end prior to their appointment, security clearances for these members must be continually reviewed. It was later revealed that this was in fact, not the first time Mr. Clement had been targeted online. During the summer of 2018, he had contacted the Ontario Provincial Police regarding another instance of extortion where he had been asked to provide intimate and personal information to someone whom he claimed, was having an online relationship with. At the first hint of this behaviour and the risks it exposed the committee to, the committee chair should have called for his resignation and initiated an investigation into the matter to determine if he had, at any point, compromised State secrets.
Secondly, according to a NSICOP spokesperson, members of the committee were subject to a briefing prior to their appointment that informed them of the risks they would now be exposed to, including extortion and blackmail. The information presented in those briefings seems not to have resonated with all members. Canadian security officials must take a greater role in educating and preparing our elected officials, who most likely do not come from backgrounds in national security, as to the risks they now face and the duty they now have.
The NSICOP is still in its infancy. The model for a successful and effective committee is still being determined, which makes it all the more important we learn from Mr. Clement’s mistakes. It is naïve to assume our enemies are not already plotting how to extort and blackmail others. We must stay vigilant and prepared, as the security of our Homeland is at stake.
Brandon Jamieson is a Master’s student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa. He specializes in national security, defence, and Canadian foreign policy. He holds a BA with Honours from Queen’s University.
Image courtesy of wikipedia.org