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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Senators call for increased parliamentary oversight of spy agencies

OTTAWA - A fear of sensitive leaks is not a good reason to scrap the idea of a full-fledged national security committee of parliamentarians, says Liberal Sen. Romeo Dallaire.

Dallaire, an advocate of subjecting the spy world to greater parliamentary scrutiny, told a gathering of senators Wednesday that an all-party committee could be entrusted to put political considerations aside and safeguard intelligence secrets.

"I honestly believe that the partisanship will dissipate to achieve the higher goal."

Some MPs and senators with an interest in national security say they cannot hold intelligence services fully to account because they lack clearance to see secret information.

Both Dallaire and Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal — another voice for stronger intelligence oversight — have announced plans to retire soon, but clearly hope their desire to give parliamentarians a bigger role lives on.

Segal, sponsor of a private bill to create an all-party committee privy to spy secrets, said he had no indication from people in charge of Canadian intelligence services that they're averse to the proposal.

"So, the only conclusion I can come to is that it is easier not to structure it because it takes a lot of work to do it right."

Still, he noted that British prime minister Winston Churchill found a way to brief the entire Parliament in secret at the height of the Second World War.

Dallaire suggested it's not the spy chiefs — but certain politicians — that have trouble with the idea of allowing backbench MPs and senators to see deep secrets.

In the House of Commons, Liberal MP Wayne Easter has also introduced a private bill that would give committee members access to top-secret information — unlike existing parliamentary panels.

The Conservative government has been cool to the notion.

Roxanne James, parliamentary secretary to the public safety minister, said in February that Easter's bill would create a "second level of bureaucracy" composed of partisan politicians.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson indicated Wednesday that the government's thinking had not changed.

"I think the system works well," he said following a speech to an industry trade show.

Intelligence expert Wesley Wark told the senators Wednesday that watchdogs should gauge not just accountability but also whether intelligence agencies are doing a good job.

A federal commission of inquiry called eight years ago for a more integrated approach to oversight, noted Wark, who teaches at the University of Ottawa.

The current array of bodies that keep an eye on security services are "very siloed" — working in isolation, he said.

"They don't have a mandate to talk to each other."

— With a file from Murray Brewster

Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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