Larry Comeau and Patrick Grady
Public Inquiries Are Not The Way To Set National Security Investigative Standards
January 1, 2007

The Canadian government has a long tradition of announcing public inquiries. This is usually done when it wants to distract the public and avoid taking politically unpopular decisions. The ink had barely dried on the O’Connor Inquiry and the Air India inquiry was already underway, when it launched another inquiry into the role of the RCMP and CSIS in the detention of three Muslim-Canadian men in Syria and Egypt. It would almost be comical if these inquiries weren’t handicapping Canada’s law enforcement and security agencies and jeopardizing our national security.

Following the earlier McDonald Commission’s recommendations in 1981, the RCMP's Security Service was disbanded and its responsibilities were transferred to the newly established Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). This agency was in its infancy, when terrorists fatally struck Air India. Through inexperience, intelligence had not been passed to the RCMP in a timely fashion, and crucial evidence was lost afterwards interfering with the prosecution of the alleged perpetrators.

In the panicky atmosphere in the aftermath of 9/11, the RCMP was hastily given back the lead role in investigating terrorism. Some mistakes were allegedly made in handling intelligence. Consequently, Mr. Justice O'Connor was appointed to head up another inquiry. One of his main conclusions was that the RCMP passed unsubstantiated intelligence to the FBI, which may have contributed to Maher Arar being deported to Syria by American authorities. Fallout from this inquiry has predictably been calls to curtail the RCMP terrorism responsibilities and to set up a system of oversight committees. Another was the resignation of the Commissioner of the RCMP, after he had to correct his testimony before the House Security Committee.

A great tribute to the commitment of the RCMP and other Canadian police services is that in spite of being under the microscope of the O’Connor Inquiry and being constrained by two new restrictive ministerial directives, terrorism investigations continued. A bomb plot in Toronto was foiled last summer and the alleged perpetrators were apprehended. But a recent ruling by the Ontario Superior Court, that the section of the Anti-terrorism Act defining terrorism violates the Charter of Rights, will weaken the anti-terrorism act, thus making successful prosecutions difficult.

A further obstacle is never-ending appeals, thanks to the Charter of Rights, making it virtually impossible to deport suspected terrorists to any country where they may be tortured. The awaited ruling by the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the security certificates under the Immigration Act may further weaken this country's ability to fight terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.

Justice O’Connor's recommendation for the creation of an Integrated National Security Review Coordinating Committee (INSRCC) to coordinate all the proposed oversight activity is a recipe for bureaucratic overlap and duplication. His recommendation for the establishment of an Independent Complaints and National Security Review Agency for the RCMP, which would be an independent oversight agency comprised of MPs or other civilians, however, is the proposal most likely to seriously compromise our ability to successfully fight terrorism.

The RCMP certainly will have problems providing its most sensitive national security intelligence to any committee whose members might not fully appreciate the gravity of the terrorist problem. This would be quite different from the existing relationship that CSIS has with the more selective and security-sensitive Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC). Many foreign agencies are already reluctant to share intelligence due to our generous “rules of disclosure.” Once they learn sensitive intelligence, such as method of operation, will be reviewed by a civilian body, they are likely to stop the flow. With no external intelligence agency of its own, this would leave Canada blind to terrorist threats from abroad.

An endless wave of inquiries is forcing the RCMP and CSIS to spend too much time preparing for these events, rather than doing their real jobs investigating potential terrorist threats. Inquiries are providing al-Qaeda with far too much useful information, thereby helping them in plotting future attacks. If we have a major terrorist attack during these inquiries, who exactly will be able to investigate and under what rules? Inquiry overload is destroying the morale of those sworn to protect us and risks making them too cautious to take the bold actions needed to counter an imminent terrorist threat.

Canada must allow our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to defend us against terrorists, without totally tying their hands. Canada's national security policies must be developed using common sense and in consultation with our closest allies, rather than by leaving it up to a never ending string of public inquiries. Without this action we may well end up with our own London-style attack.

Larry Comeau is a retired RCMP Superintendent with considerable international policing experience and Patrick Grady is an economist who’s worried about terrorism after 9/11 and who wrote Royal Canadian Jihad, a novel about terrorism in Canada.