Thursday, April 03, 2014

CSEC Chief testifies to National Defence committee

CSEC Chief John Forster and Minister of National Defence Rob Nicholson testified to the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence on April 3rd. (Audio available here; the transcript of the testimony won't be available for some time.)

[Update 28 April 2014: Transcript available here.]

Nicholson and Forster were originally scheduled to appear before the committee on March 6th, but that session was cancelled at the last minute, leaving observers wondering if Forster would appear before the committee at all.

It's reassuring to see that Forster's testimony did eventually take place.

The scheduled topics of discussion included questions related to the Supplementary Estimates (C) (and the activities in general) of the Department of National Defence as well as questions related to CSEC, so only part of the committee's time was dedicated to CSEC. But a lot of the discussion during the session did focus on CSEC.

Some detailed questions were posed by NDP defence critic Jack Harris and his colleague Elaine Michaud (although not perhaps the ones I or other outside observers might have asked), and some were also asked by Liberal Joyce Murray, but I don't think any especially new or enlightening information was provided by Forster or Nicholson in response. In some cases, Forster was unwilling even to provide information that has already been made public. Forster was very reluctant to confirm, for example, that one of the forms of support that CSEC may provide to federal law enforcement and security agencies is to intercept the communications of specific Canadians in cases where those agencies have a warrant to obtain those communications. (See here for confirmation of that role.)

We also got some softball questions from the government members. Ragging the puck is about all that government members are useful for on these committees, so I guess we shouldn't be too disappointed if that's all they do. Hope you enjoy your gold-plated pensions.

All in all, the meeting didn't do a lot to validate the government's claim that the National Defence committee is capable of performing genuine oversight over CSEC, but at least it was a start.

Let's hope the committee's "study of Communications Security Establishment Canada intelligence-gathering policies and practices" amounts to more than just this one part of one meeting.

Update 5 April 2014:

News coverage:

Colin Freeze, "CSEC dodges questions on relationship with Big Three telecom companies," Globe and Mail, 4 April 2014.

Update 10 April 2014: See excerpt of Harris's subsequent e-mail comments to Freeze here: "What happened on Thursday certainly couldn't pass for parliamentaey oversight when MP's can't get straight answers on straightforward questions."

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