Steven Chaplin has a really great explanation of whether the Canadian government can rely on national security and evidentiary laws to lawfully justify refusing to provide documents to the House of Commons, and to House committees. His analysis and explanation arose as a result of the Canadian government doing everything it could to, first, refuse to provide documents to the Parliamentary Committee which was studying Canadian-Chinese relations and, subsequently, refusing to provide the documents when compelled to do so by the House of Commons itself.
Rather than releasing the requested documents the government turned to the courts to adjudicate whether the documents in question–which were asserted to contain sensitive national security information–must, in fact, be released to the House or whether they could instead be sent to an executive committee, filled with Members of Parliament and Senators, to assess the contents instead. As Chaplin notes,
Having the courts intervene, as proposed by the government’s application in the Federal Court, is not an option. The application is clearly precluded by Article 9 of the Bill of Rights, 1689, which provides that a proceeding in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in court. Article 9 not only allows for free speech; it is also a constitutional limit on the jurisdiction of the courts to preclude judicial interference in the business of the House.
The House ordered that the documents be tabled without redaction. Any decision of the court that found to the contrary would impeach or question the proceeding that led to the Order. And any attempt by the courts to balance the interests involved would constitute the courts becoming involved in ascertaining, and thereby questioning, the needs of the House and why the House wants the documents.
Beyond the Court’s involvement impeding into the territory of Parliament, there could be serious and long-term implications of letting the court become a space wherein the government and the House fight to obtain information that has been demanded. Specifically,
It may be that at the end of the day the government will continue to refuse to produce documents. In the same way that the government cannot use the courts to withhold documents, the House cannot go to court to compel the government to produce them, or to order witnesses to attend proceedings. It could also invite disobedience of witnesses, requiring the House to either drop inquiries or involve the courts to compel attendance or evidence. Allowing, or requiring, the government and the House to resolve their differences in the courts would not only be contrary to the constitutional principles of Article 9, but “would inevitably create delays, disruption, uncertainties and costs which would hold up the nation’s business and on that account would be unacceptable even if, in the end, the Speaker’s rulings were vindicated as entirely proper” (Canada (House of Commons) v. Vaid ). In short, the courts have no business intervening one way or the other.
Throughout the discussions that have taken place about this issue in Canada, what has been most striking is that the national security commentators and elites have envisioned that the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) could (and should) be tasked to resolve any and all particularly sensitive national security issues that might be of interest to Parliament. None, however, seems to have contemplated that Parliament, itself, might take issue with the government trying to exclude Parliament from engaging in assessments of the government’s national security decisions nor that issue would be taken when topics of interest to Parliamentarians were punted into an executive body, wherein their fellow Members of Parliament on the body were sworn to the strictest secrecy. Instead, elites have hand waved to the importance of preserving secrecy in order for Canada to receive intelligence from allies, as well as asserted that the government would never mislead Parliament on national security matters (about which, these same experts explain, Members of Parliament are not prepared to receive, process, or understand given the sophistication of the intelligence and the apparent simplicity of most Parliamentarians themselves).
This was the topic of a recent episode of the Intrepid Podcast, where Philippe Lagassé noted that the exclusion of parliamentary experts when creating NSICOP meant that these entirely predictable showdown situations were functionally baked into how the executive body was composed. As someone who raised the issue of adopting an executive, versus a standing House, committee and was rebuffed as being ignorant of the reality of national security it’s with more than a little satisfaction that the very concerns which were raised when NSICOP was being created are, in fact, arising on the political agenda.
With regard to the documents that the House Committee was seeking, I don’t know or particularly care what their contents include. From my own experience I’m all too well aware that ‘national security’ is often stamped on things that either governments want to keep from the public because they can be politically damaging, be kept from the public just generally because of a culture of non-transparency and refusal of accountability, as well as (less often) be kept from the public on the basis that there are bonafide national security interests at stake. I do, however, care that the Government of Canada has (again) acted counter to Parliament’s wishes and has deliberately worked to impede the House from doing its work.
Successive governments seem to genuinely believe that they get to ‘rule’ Canada absolutely and with little accountability. While this is, in function, largely true given how cowed Members of Parliament are to their party leaders it’s incredibly serious and depressing to see the government further erode Parliament’s powers and abilities to fulfil its duties. A healthy democracy is filled with bumps for the government as it is held to account but, sadly, the Government of Canada–regardless of the party in power–is incredibly active in keeping itself, and its behaviours, from the public eye and thus held to account.
If only a committee might be struck to solve this problem…
Jason Healey and Robert Jervis have a thought provoking piece over at the Modern War Institute at West Point. The crux of the argument is that, as a result of overclassification, it’s challenging if not impossible for policymakers or members of the public (to say nothing of individual analysts in the intelligence community or legislators) to truly understand the nature of contemporary cyberconflict. While there’s a great deal written about how Western organizations have been targeted by foreign operators, and how Western governments have been detrimentally affected by foreign operations, there is considerably less written about the effects of Western governments’ own operations towards foreign states because those operations are classified.
To put it another way, there’s no real way of understanding the cause and effect of operations, insofar as it’s not apparent why foreign operators are behaving as they are in what may be reaction to Western cyber operations or perceptions of Western cyber operations. The kinds of communiques provided by American intelligence officials, while somewhat helpful, also tend to obscure as much as they reveal (on good days). Healey and Jervis write:
General Nakasone and others are on solid ground when highlighting the many activities the United States does not conduct, like “stealing intellectual property” for commercial profit or disrupting the Olympic opening ceremonies. There is no moral equivalent between the most aggressive US cyber operations like Stuxnet and shutting down civilian electrical power in wintertime Ukraine or hacking a French television station and trying to pin the blame on Islamic State terrorists. But it clouds any case that the United States is the victim here to include such valid complaints alongside actions the United States does engage in, like geopolitical espionage. The concern of course is a growing positive feedback loop, with each side pursuing a more aggressive posture to impose costs after each fresh new insult by others, a posture that tempts adversaries to respond with their own, even more aggressive posture.
Making things worse, the researchers and academics who are ostensibly charged with better understanding and unpacking what Western intelligence agencies are up to sometimes decline to fulfill their mandate. The reasons are not surprising: engaging in such revelations threaten possible career prospects, endanger the very publication of the research in question, or risk cutting off access to interview subjects in the future. Healey and Jervis focus on the bizarre logics of working and researching the intelligence community in the United States, saying (with emphasis added):
Think-tank staff and academic researchers in the United States often shy away from such material (with exceptions like Ben Buchanan) so as not to hamper their chances of a future security clearance. Even as senior researchers, we were careful not to directly quote NSA’s classified assessment of Iran, but rather paraphrased a derivative article.
A student, working in the Department of Defense, was not so lucky, telling us that to get through the department’s pre-publication review, their thesis would skip US offensive operations and instead focus on defense.
Such examples highlight the distorting effects of censorship or overclassification: authors are incentivized to avoid what patrons want ignored and emphasize what patrons want highlighted or what already exists in the public domain. In paper after paper over the decades, new historical truths are cumulatively established in line with patrons’ preferences because they control the flow and release of information.
What are the implications as written by Healey and Jervis? In intelligence communities the size of the United States’, information gets lost or not passed to whomever it ideally should be presented to. Overclassification also means that policy makers and legislators who aren’t deeply ‘in the know’ will likely engage in decisions based on half-founded facts, at best. In countries such as Canada, where parliamentary committees cannot access classified information, they will almost certainly be confined to working off of rumour, academic reports, government reports that are unclassified, media accounts that divulge secrets or gossip, and the words spoken by the heads of security and intelligence agencies. None of this is ideal for controlling these powerful organizations, and the selective presentation of what Western agencies are up to actually risks compounding broader social ills.
Legislative Ignorance and Law
One of the results of overclassification is that legislators, in particular, become ill-suited to actually understanding national security legislation that is presented before them. It means that members of the intelligence and national security communities can call for powers and members of parliament are largely prevented from asking particularly insightful questions, or truly appreciate the implications of the powers that are being asked for.
Indeed, in the Canadian context it’s not uncommon for parliamentarians to have debated a national security bill in committee for months and, when asked later about elements of the bill, they admit that they never really understood it in the first place. The same is true for Ministers who have, subsequently, signed off on broad classes of operations that have been authorized by said legislation.
Part of that lack of understanding is the absence of examples of how powers have been used in the past, and how they might be used in the future; when engaging with this material entirely in the abstract, it can be tough to grasp the likely or possible implications of any legislation or authorization that is at hand. This is doubly true in situations where new legislation or Ministerial authorization will permit secretive behaviour, often using secretive technologies, to accomplish equally secretive objectives.
Beyond potentially bad legislative debates leading to poorly understood legislation being passed into law and Ministers consenting to operations they don’t understand, what else may follow from overclassification?
Nationalism, Miscalculated Responses, and Racism
To begin with, it creates a situation where ‘we’ in the West are being attacked by ‘them’ in Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, or other distant lands. I think this is problematic because it casts Western nations, and especially those in the Five Eyes, as innocent victims in the broader world of cyber conflict. Of course, individuals with expertise in this space will scoff at the idea–we all know that ‘our side’ is up to tricks and operations as well!–but for the general public or legislators, that doesn’t get communicated using similarly robust or illustrative examples. The result is that the operations of competitor nations can be cast as acts of ‘cyberwar’ without any appreciation that those actions may, in fact, be commensurate with the operations that Five Eyes nations have themselves launched. In creating an Us versus Them, and casting the Five Eyes and West more broadly as victims, a kind of nationalism can be incited where ‘They’ are threats whereas ‘We’ are innocents. In a highly complex and integrated world, these kinds of sharp and inaccurate concepts can fuel hate and socially divisive attitudes, activities, and policies.
At the same time, nations may perceive themselves to be targeted by Five Eyes nations, and deduce effects to Five Eyes operations even when that isn’t the case. When a set of perimeter logs show something strange, or when computers are affected by ransomware or wiperware, or another kind of security event takes place, these less resourced nations may simply assume that they’re being targeted by a Five Eyes operation. The result is that foreign government may both drum up nationalist concerns about ‘the West’ or ‘the Five Eyes’ while simultaneously queuing up their own operations to respond to what may, in fact, have been an activity that was totally divorced from the Five Eyes.
I also worry that the overclassification problem can lead to statements in Western media that demonizes broad swathes of the world as dangerous or bad, or threatening for reasons that are entirely unapparent because Western activities are suppressed from public commentary. Such statements arise with regular frequency, where China is attributed to this or to that, or when Russia or Middle Eastern countries are blamed for the most recent ill on the Internet.
The effect of such statements can be to incite differential degrees of racism. When mainstream newspapers, as an example, constantly beat the drum that the Chinese government (and, by extension, Chinese people) are threats to the stability and development of national economies or world stability, over time this has the effect of teaching people that China’s government and citizens alike are dangerous. Moreover, without information about Western activities, the operations conducted by foreign agencies can be read out of context with the effect that people of certain ethnicities are regarded as inherently suspicious or sneaky as compared to those (principally white) persons who occupy the West. While I would never claim that the overclassification of Western intelligence operations are the root cause of racism in societies I do believe that overclassification can fuel misinformation about the scope of geopolitics and Western intelligence gathering operations, with the consequence of facilitating certain subsequent racist attitudes.
A colleague of mine has, in the past, given presentations and taught small courses in some of Canada’s intelligence community. This colleague lacks any access to classified materials and his classes focus on how much high quality information is publicly available when you know how and where to look for it, and how to analyze it. Students are apparently regularly shocked: they have access to the classified materials, but their understandings of the given issues are routinely more myopic and less robust. However, because they have access to classified material they tend to focus as much, or more, on it because the secretive nature of the material makes it ‘special’.
This is not a unique issue and, in fact, has been raised in the academic literature. When someone has access to special or secret knowledge they are often inclined to focus in on that material, on the assumption that it will provide insights in excess of what are available in open source. Sometimes that’s true, but oftentimes less so. And this ‘less so’ becomes especially problematic when operating in an era where governments tend to classify a great deal of material simply because the default is to assume that anything could potentially be revelatory to an agency’s operations. In this kind of era, overvaluing classified materials can lead to less insightful understandings of the issues of the day while simultaneously not appreciating that much of what is classified, and thus cast as ‘special’, really doesn’t provide much of an edge when engaging in analysis.
The solution is not to declassify all materials but, instead, to adopt far more aggressive declassification processes. This could, as just an example, entail tying declassification in some way to organizations’ budgets, such that if they fail to declassify materials their budgets are forced to be realigned in subsequent quarters or years until they make up from the prior year(s)’ shortfalls. Extending the powers of Information Commissioners, which are tasked with forcing government institutions to publish documents when they are requested by members of the public or parliamentarians (preferably subject to a more limited set of exemptions than exist today) might help. And having review agencies which can unpack higher-level workings of intelligence community organizations can also help.
Ultimately, we need to appreciate that national security and intelligence organizations do not exist in a bubble, but that their mandates mean that the externalized problems linked with overclassification are typically not seen as issues that these organizations, themselves, need to solve. Nor, in many cases, will they want to solve them: it can be very handy to keep legislators in the dark and then ask for more powers, all while raising the spectre of the Other and concealing the organizations’ own activities.
We do need security and intelligence organizations, but as they stand today their tendency towards overclassification runs the risk of compounding a range of deleterious conditions. At least one way of ameliorating those conditions almost certainly includes reducing the amount of material that these agencies currently classify as secret and thus kept from public eye. On this point, I firmly agree with Healey and Jervis.
Elizabeth May, then the sole Member of Parliament representing the Green Party, tells the story of MPs of various party affiliations inquiring of her as to how she decides how she is going to vote on any particular bill or motion. She replies that she reads the bill, studies it, consults with her constituents, sometimes asks questions of the sponser, and then comes to her position. Incredulous, MPs from other parties exlaim about how labour intensive that must be and how much easier it is to simply follow the voting instructions provided by the party whips! Undoubtably that is true. However, I believe most constituents would be shocked to discover that their elected representatives are voting automatons, often too disengaged to even follow what item they are voting on.
Today was deeply disturbing for me: what should have been a routine day of presenting at a conference panel turned into a day where I (and other conference members) were placed into lockdown (along with thousands of others in downtown Ottawa and government offices) in the wake of a serious crimes event.
The panel was for the IIC-Canada, and we were to discuss the topic of telecommunications transparency reporting. Immediately prior to the panel, however, a gunman shot and killed a reserve soldier standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. The gunman then proceeded to Parliament where he was ultimately shot dead. He was killed inside the central block.
Shortly after the panel, and just as lunch began, the second floor of the convention centre was cleared and we were moved to the third floor. It was a bit strange, truth be told: we moved using cargo elevators so as to keep people away from the building’s exterior windows. Then, after several hours under lockdown we were all freed to leave.
We were never in any particular danger. The lockdown was just a precaution for safety’s sake.
Nevertheless I’m sad. And furious. Absolutely furious that a reservist was killed at a war memorial. Enraged that someone had the audacity to enter the Parliament with the intent to cause serious harm and death to those within. Sickened that bad legislation may follow from the attack, an attack which targeted people who have committed themselves to protecting and advocating for Canadians. Public service is an honourable calling and the criminal targeted exactly those who had heard the call.
Thus far the Canadian media has generally been balanced. And I think my reaction – sadness and anger – is in common with many Canadians. We’re not terrified. We’re righteously pissed off at the individual or individuals who choose to attack the symbolic heart of our democracy.
No matter how problematic the laws passed, however dysfunctional the party politics, and regardless of the bad-behaviours in Parliament, our MPs are there to peacefully and verbally resolve and address the issues of the day. Words are the way that problems are addressed and dealt with; they are not solved using violence involving martial weaponry.
The solution to the attack today is not more weapons and less public access to Parliament or more constrained or secured debate but the opposite: equivalent parliamentary security and access to Parliament, and even more robust and transparent parliamentary debate. We can choose to seek vengeance or simply carry on in the face of this attack. I, like many or most Canadian, pray that the latter approach is adopted over the former.