On November 4, 2022, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) released a Special Report on the National Security and Intelligence Activities of Global Affairs Canada (GAC). NSICOP is responsible for the review of activities carried out by national security and intelligence departments.

iAffairs Canada sat down with the Honourable David McGuinty, Chair of the Committee, for a discussion on the importance of review bodies, the Special Report’s findings and its implications for Canadian foreign policy efforts. The Honourable David McGuinty has served as a Member of Parliament for Ottawa-South since 2004. In addition to chairing NSICOP, McGuinty is a member of the Joint Inter-Parliamentary Council and President of the Canadian Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

A redacted copy of NSICOP’s Special Report on the National Security and Intelligence Activities of Global Affairs Canada can be found on their website here: https://www.nsicop-cpsnr.ca/reports/rp-2022-11-04/intro-en.html.

At the core of NSICOP’s mandate is to improve Government accountability for national security and intelligence. How does Cabinet confidence on documents and information affect the Committee’s ability to review our existing frameworks for matters of national security and intelligence?

The Committee respects the principle of Cabinet confidence, particularly the exchange of opinions among Ministers at Cabinet (‘core secrets’). While the Committee notes that it is not entitled to receive Cabinet confidences under the provisions of its Act, it is also true that it is not prohibited from receiving them if the government decides to provide them.

In our most recent review, we saw government departments make broad claims of Cabinet confidence on information that already had been provided and included in the Committee’s report (several claims also were made on information provided earlier, which the Committee agreed to delete from its holdings out of respect for department claims that it had been provided in error). In aggregate, these claims restricted the Committee’s access to information. The Committee challenged all five of the claims made after it had completed its report, and the Privy Council Office agreed to drop four (the Committee noted its disagreement with the Privy Council on the fifth claim in its report, which it nonetheless deleted).

The Committee believes that the problem is twofold: the breadth of the definition of Cabinet confidence in the Canada Evidence Act, and how that statute is being interpreted in practice. The Committee is concerned that, in future reviews, departments will increasingly claim Cabinet confidence, which risks preventing relevant information from being provided. As there is no requirement nor practice for the government to identify documents being withheld on the basis of Cabinet confidence, the Committee will not know what is being withheld or be able to challenge the merit of the claim (as it could in this report).

Ultimately, the Committee must have the information necessary to fulfill its mandate of conducting reviews of the national security and intelligence community. It is concerned that a broad application of a broad definition of Cabinet confidence will undermine the Committee’s ability to fulfill its mandate, which at its core is to strengthen the government’s accountability for this critical area of public policy.  

Given the fundamental role of ministerial accountability in our parliamentary system, what concerns does the recently published special report raise around the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ awareness and accountability for the Department’s participation in sensitive intelligence collection activities?

Ministerial accountability is fundamental to our system of government. In all its previous reviews, the Committee has placed considerable emphasis on the importance of governance. The reason is simple: governance serves accountability. Governance mechanisms – ministerial direction, formalized policies and procedures, oversight committees and regular reporting requirements – create a clear link between a minister’s authorities and the activities conducted under those authorities, and they provide the necessary documentation and transparency to account for decisions. The Committee found these elements to be lacking in GAC’s governance scheme.

The Department has few reporting requirements in place for its national security and intelligence activities. Instead, the Minister of Foreign Affairs provides their approval to go ahead with, for example, a foreign intelligence target under CSIS authorities or a foreign arrangement, but no formal mechanism exists to keep the Minister apprised of those activities and their associated risks.

Furthermore, the informal and ad hoc consultations within the Department weaken consistency and institutional memory of its contributions to the security and intelligence community. This issue of consistency applies most clearly to GAC’s role in ensuring foreign policy coherence. The absence of any policies or documentation of consultation makes it difficult to determine whether these practices are applied consistently over time and across cases.

This raises some concerns for the Committee. First, strong accountability measures ensure that proper processes and practices are built into a system. In the absence of such measures, decision-making can increasingly rely only on the good judgement of individual officials and not a formalized and inclusive process. Second, strong ministerial accountability should ensure that ministers are well informed about, and able to speak to the issues for which they are responsible. The absence of formal reporting mechanisms observed in the report may limit the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ understanding of the full scope of the Department’s national security and intelligence activities, how they have changed, and the evolving risks associated with them. This undermines their accountability for such activities.

Based on the report’s findings, how does Global Affairs Canada (GAC) currently ensure that the activities and policies of other Canadian security and intelligence organizations align with Canada’s foreign policy objectives?

GAC’s broadest role in the security and intelligence community is to ensure foreign policy coherence. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is both responsible for advancing Canada’s foreign policy interests and accountable for the foreign policy implications of the government’s activities domestically and abroad. GAC seeks to fulfill this role through a variety of formal and informal mechanisms, which the Committee believes could in some instances be strengthened or enhanced.

Domestically, the Department consults regularly with its core partners in the security and intelligence community through various processes and committee structures. As noted in the report, GAC has established effective consultation mechanisms with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) to ensure the foreign policy coherence of their activities. GAC’s formalized contribution of foreign policy risk assessments for CSIS activities with a foreign policy nexus, and for CSE’s active and defensive cyber operations, represent a recognition of GAC’s equities and shared responsibilities in security and intelligence activities with a foreign nexus.

Between GAC and the Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces (DND/CAF), on the other hand, challenges remain in the area of foreign policy coherence. This is true despite DND/CAF having received direction from the Prime Minister and their respective ministers to formalize consultation to ensure the foreign policy coherence of CAF deployments abroad, active cyber operations, and activities in the South China Sea. The two departments have also not implemented a standardized process for interdepartmental consultations on the deployment of defence intelligence capabilities, as recommended by the Committee in its 2018 review.  

Abroad, the heads of Canadian missions (embassies, consulates) play a central role in ensuring the foreign policy coherence of the security and intelligence community’s activities. The views of the various departments with staff posted abroad on the reporting requirements of their officers to heads of mission were relatively consistent, with one exception: RCMP, which stated that its deployed personnel had no reporting relationship with the heads of mission. This is contrary to the DFATD Act, which notes that the head of mission is responsible for the supervision of the official activities of the various organizations working at the mission. 

Finally, the Department’s foreign policy perspective and responsibilities are a central consideration in the government’s broader response to a wide range of national security threats, most prominently hostile activity by state actors.

How might GAC strengthen Canada’s foreign policy cohesion in this regard?

The report recommends that the Minister of Foreign Affairs work with the Minister of National Defence to put in place proactive, regular and comprehensive consultation mechanisms to ensure that Canada’s defence policies and military operations are aligned with its foreign policy objectives. However, the Committee did not identify specific steps the government should take to fulfil this objective; consistent with the principle of Ministerial accountability, Ministers themselves must determine whether to accept the Committee’s recommendations and how best to implement them.

The Committee’s recommendations, among other things, seek to ensure the alignment of Canada’s defence policy and military operations with foreign policy objectives. Are there past examples you can provide where this type of alignment has failed, and perhaps a current example where this will be particularly important in regards to Canada’s foreign policy efforts?

The report did not explore specific examples of the lack of alignment of Canada’s defence policy and military operations with foreign policy objectives. It relied on documents provided by both departments as well as appearances with relevant officials to conclude that consultations between GAC and DND/CAF have remained largely ad hoc and informal until recently.

In terms of current examples where the alignment of DND/CAF’s operations with GAC’s foreign policy would be particularly important, the report mentions a request from the Minister of National Defence in 2019 for her officials to work with GAC to develop a consultation framework for CAF’s activities in the South China Sea. It also refers to direction from the ministers of Foreign Affairs and National Defence as well as the Prime minister to ensure CAF deployments abroad and active cyber operations align better with Canada’s foreign policy interests, priorities and multilateral commitments. Similarly, a past Committee report identified the need to increase the foreign policy coherence of CAF’s defence intelligence activities.

The report highlighted concerning lapses in GAC’s information management and retention practices. What are the implications of such gaps for the Department’s governance and accountability for the management of international critical incidents?

Consistent information management leads to strong institutional memory, a crucial governance mechanism to ensure accountability. Indeed, the development and documentation of processes and procedures ensure that a proper decision-making system is built without relying on the good judgment of any individual official. Yet, the report shows that multiple factors weaken GAC’s information management consistency and institutional memory, most notably the informal and ad hoc nature of consultations within the Department during its internal assessment process or when contributing to national security reviews under the Investment Canada Act.

The Department’s human resources systems exacerbate this challenge. Staffing within the Department is partly rotational, which means that a portion of its employees changes roles every two or three years. In such a context, documented policies and procedures are even more critical to ensuring that officials are aware of past practice and able to ensure the quality and rigour of processes on an ongoing basis.

In the case of international critical incidents, stronger information management and retention practices would build institutional memory and potentially facilitate the implementation of ‘lessons learned’ from past incidents. In turn, this should support more structured decision-making and more formalized case management processes, thereby better supporting Ministerial accountability.

Finally, what role might internal and external governance mechanisms play in promoting clear and transparent processes relating to GAC’s security and intelligence activities?

Governance serves accountability. Strong governance mechanisms, including formal consultations processes and record keeping, provide a valuable basis to understand how organizations make decisions, thereby strengthening transparency and accountability.

On internal governance, GAC officials conduct risk assessment processes and internal consultations in the context of various security assessments, but they lack procedures and do not keep formal records. This gap hinders the rigour and consistency of the Department’s assessments, and its ability to remain transparent when it comes to its security and intelligence activities. It also affects the ability of the Minister to account for her decisions and to remain accountable throughout their implementation. 

The same is true for GAC’s responsibilities to ensure the activities of other government departments are aligned with Canada’s broadest foreign policy priorities. For example, more formalized external governance mechanisms when it comes to GAC’s coordination and collaboration with other government departments such as DND/CAF would strengthen transparency regarding the operations of this department abroad.

In short, stronger governance mechanisms should increase the Minister’s accountability to Parliament. They would also improve the ability of review bodies, such as the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, to fulfill their mandates in support of Ministerial accountability.  


Catherine Monteith-Pistor is an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where she specializes in intelligence and data science. She completed her undergraduate degree in Media Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her current studies focus on the application of emerging technological capabilities within the context of national security. She has experience working as a student for the House of Commons as well as the federal government of Canada.

Photo Credit: Paul VanDerWerk via Flickr

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