NSICOP 2.0

It’s time to start thinking about making the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians a National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliament

With the official opposition boycotting the Committee and its vulnerability to the realities of a minority parliament now evident, we need to think about a reboot. 

My friends and colleagues are wont to blame the current kerfuffle on politicians. From this perspective, the Committee has been undermined by politics and the inability of parliamentarians to behave responsibly. The boycott is also seen as a blow to parliamentary oversight of national security affairs. 

As I argued yesterday, the underlying problem with NSICOP is its structure (an executive body), not the agents (parliamentarians). As an executive body, NSICOP was going to run into trouble when the opposition parties controlled the Commons. Portraying NSICOP as a de facto parliamentary committee wasn’t going to cut it when we faced a stand-off between the legislature and the executive. NSICOP wasn’t going to be an acceptable stand-in for parliamentary scrutiny of national security affairs when the opposition has the power to demand actual parliamentary accountability. Instead of blaming parliamentarians for being parliamentarians, we should ask why we thought it was wise to set up an executive review body and pretend that it was a viable substitute for a proper legislative committee. 

If the underlying issue here is that NSICOP is an executive body, rather than a legislative one, then the solution is arguably to transform it into an actual parliamentary committee. 

What problems would making NSICOP a parliamentary committee solve?

First, it would mean that when a house of Parliament demands national security documents from the executive, there would be a parliamentary committee to review them. This would avoid the legitimate concern that the Commons’ privileges and powers are being diluted by referring these matters to an executive body. 

Second, if NSICOP were a parliamentary committee, the opposition couldn’t claim the government is skirting parliamentary scrutiny if the matter was referred to the committee. It would no longer be necessary to pretend that NSICOP is involved in parliamentary oversight because its members are parliamentarians. The opposition could no longer use the Committee’s status as an executive body to decry that Parliament and its powers are being undermined. 

Third, it would empower Parliament. There’s something pretty sad about the fact that we thought creating an executive body was a victory for parliamentary accountability. Indeed, it says a lot about the sorry state of the legislative power in Canada that we thought the way to strengthen parliamentary accountability was to create an agency within the executive. I mean, come on, people.

I expect the response to these structural points will be that parliamentarians can’t be trusted with national security issues or security clearances. The Conservative’s boycott of NSICOP will be presented as evidence that parliamentarians can’t be serious about these issues and that a parliamentary committee will be even more politicized. 

Although I get that sentiment, let’s look at what’s actually happened here. The problem isn’t that the members of NSICOP were irresponsible or that they misused their clearances or mandate for political ends. Whatever else we can say about the current confrontation, it doesn’t suggest that parliamentarians can’t be trusted with classified information. 

Seeing the opposition’s demand for documents as unserious or irresponsible, moreover, reflects an executive perspective. The executive thinks that only an executive body should see documents from the executive. The executive maintains that parliamentarians serving in an executive capacity is a good compromise when the legislature seeks to hold the government to account. That may seem like a non-partisan and serious way of looking at it if you adopt the government’s point of view. If you come at it from a parliamentary perspective, though, you see a partisan executive trying to get around the legislature’s constitutional functions and powers. Defending those functions and powers may seem unserious and purely partisan from the executive’s point of view, but its a very serious matter if you look at it from a parliamentary vantage point. 

Lastly, it’s worth addressing the question that’s floating around this entire discussion: how would we prevent members of a parliamentary national security committee from sharing classified information under the cover of parliamentary privilege? This isn’t the intractable problem it’s made out to be: take a look at how the Australians and the British manage this risk with their parliamentary national security committees. But aren’t Canadian parliamentarians different? Aren’t they particularly irresponsible?

Well, perhaps the way to make them act more responsibly is to make them more responsible. 

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