How do we balance freedom and security?

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EDMONTON, AB, Feb 26, 2015/ Troy Media/ – The Conservative government in Ottawa plans to introduce new anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51, expanding the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and lowering the bar for action against suspected terrorists. Under the new law CSIS will be granted the power, with the approval of a federal judge, to disrupt rather than just investigate suspected terrorists.

This includes blocking financial transactions, cancelling plane tickets, and intercepting shipments believed to be part of terrorist operations. These will be in addition to CSIS’ current powers to recruit informants and conduct physical and electronic surveillance of suspects.

Freedom and security a perennial challenge

Opponents of the bill, including the NDP, make two charges against it: first, that it is a political move to draw votes before the next federal election and second, that it will be used as a tool to harass environmental and other protest movements opposed to the Harper government’s agenda. Whether or not the charges are true, the bill is certainly popular: a new Angus Reid poll indicates that the bill enjoys broad support from the voting public.

Balancing security and freedom is one of the perennial challenges of free societies like ours. It always will be because threats wax and wane; some periods of history are more turbulent than others, and require a greater focus on security. Others are more tranquil and invite an expansion of freedoms. How, then, are we to balance security and freedom?

The solution is oversight, which the new legislation sadly lacks. With its new powers, CSIS will not be subject to greater scrutiny by the government. Instead, its actions will still be subject to review by the Security Intelligence Review Committee, an appointed panel widely regarded by journalists who report on CSIS and constitutional law experts as an ineffective rubber-stamping body. Though there have been few scandals thus far, the activities of the Service appear to be treated the same way by its masters as its much-maligned predecessor, the RCMP Security Service, which was dissolved after its officers’ law breaking and civil liberties abuses were exposed in the 1970s. Now, as then, the attitude of government appears to be “I don’t care how it gets done, just make sure I don’t hear about it.”

If you’re looking for some dull reading, I recommend skimming over the reports of SIRC. While understandably vague about the details of the complaints they are investigating, they always find in favour of CSIS’ agents and bureaucrats and offer only the lightest of criticisms. This is not robust oversight.

Oversight of the service should not be in the hands of a powerless investigative committee of appointees (any complaints they did raise would have to be acted on by the Minister of Public Security, who would have discretion to just ignore or bury the issue). Instead, we should have a permanent sitting committee in the House of Commons where MPs from all parties would regularly review all the operations of CSIS. This would preserve accountability in oversight and decrease the chances that wrongdoing by its Intelligence Officers, however well-intentioned, would be buried for fear of making the government look bad. If sufficiently alarmed, MPs could also exercise their rights to be free of criminal prosecution for anything they may say as Members of Parliament, enabling them to expose wrongdoing even if it involved secrets of national security.

Freedom and security both required for a flourishing civic life

Security is absolutely necessary to a functioning civil society. Without peace and order, none of the things we value about life in Canada would be possible. Terrorists, subversives, and foreign spies pose a threat to that security and need to be checked by robust intelligence and law enforcement.

At the same time, peace and order exist for the sake of freedom, the other necessary condition of a flourishing civic life. The way to walk this fine balance is with robust oversight by a permanent bipartisan committee of elected Members of Parliament.

Michael Flood is a marketing writer and communications consultant. He holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Alberta.

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