A One-Word Fix: Bill C-59, the Constitution & Communications Security Establishment Activities
Monday, October 2, 2017 at 2:38PM
craigforcese in Bill C-59, CSE, Chapter 11: Surveillance, bill c-59, charter, ministerial responsibility, surveilance

As the parliamentary season starts, I have begun working up more detailed thinking on bill C-59, the government's massive national security law overhaul. A lot of this bill is about heading off constitutional and other legal train-wrecks. But it also includes measured moves into new areas, with attention to drafting these powers in manners that (hopefully) will not ignite new legal controversies. In some respect, it is about getting the law out of the way as a source of doubt, at the cost of accepting more structural checks and balances.

In a first note, I set out observations on the new "intelligence commissioner" process for CSE foreign intelligence activities. The focus here is on the question of whether C-59 is enough to cure the constitutional objections to CSE's current manner of operating. For what it is worth, I think it is one word away from doing that.

The Shiny Bauble of Ministerial Responsibility

There is another issue not addressed in the paper. Does the presence of the intelligence commissioner constitute an erosion of ministerial responsibility? This seems to be a recurring issue in some parts of Ottawa. I am not entirely sure everyone means the same thing in discussing the concept, but what it means is: a minister answerable in Parliament for subordinates, and responsible for the conduct of those subordinates.

Those who have read some of my public law work will know that my view on ministerial responsibility in Canadian government in relation to the second half of the above sentence is: "What a wonderful idea. Too bad it doesn't exist." As I concluded after surveying practice between 1950 and 2009, it is rare to the point of being unknown for ministers to resign in response to wrongdoings committed by their subordinates, at least officially. (Senator Forsey arrived at similar conclusions in his notable 1985 work, The Question of Confidence). The buck-stops-here concept of ministerial responsibility is a magnificent myth, not a reality. There is a reason why Donald Savoie called one his books "Breaking the Bargain".

So, it seems a bad idea to preserve a myth by insisting on a form of unilateral executive oversight of CSE activities that is almost certainly unconstitutional without the interpostion of an independent judicial officer.

And in the area of CSE, there are several additional exhibits tending to suggest that the status quo is a bad idea.  First, on information and belief, the minister of national defence's office has not had the internal capacity (at least in the past) to "red team" thoroughly CSE authorizations to intercept private communications.  Put another way, I fear ministerial oversight has been modest.

Second, so modest has been ministerial oversight in this area that when the Snowden disclosures came out and there were revelations of CSE collection of Wifi information from Toronto airport, it was CSE's review body that stepped most vocally into the breach to offer conclusions and observations. Put another way, the review body took bullets, something that should never happen in a world with functional ministerial responsibility.

Third, C-59 does not actually remove the minister from the driver's seat. It just puts the intelligence commissioner in the back seat, looking over the minister's shoulder.  Unlike with conventional warrants, which judges shape (albeit with input from government lawyers), the C-59 system requires the minister to kick first at the authorization can, and set the terms and conditions.  Only then does the intelligence commissioner review and bless (or not). This is a double-lock system in which the minister turns the key first. It is not one in which the ministers is subordinated. Instead, he or she is watched.

As my article suggests, I think this is probably the most clever way to square the constitution with CSE's rather sui generis activities.  Take it away, and you run the real risk that the current system ends up at the Supreme Court. That Court has, of late, rarely turned down an opportunity to apply new understandings of privacy rules to new technology. Leaving it to the Court to speak first on this issue -- and perhaps narrow the range of options -- would be a huge mistake.

Added to which: a court finding that CSE's activities since (probably well before) 2001 have been unconstitutional would be disastrous for CSE. Indeed, even as we need to call upon it to do more in the area of cybersecurity and cyberassurance in the public and private sectors, its reputation would be shattered.  And those private sector companies that touch it with a ten foot pole risk collateral reputational injury.  Put another way, C-59 needs to solve the problem of a CSE currently tied to the tracks, with a Charter train rumbling toward it.

So you need to be a real risk-lover to preserve a status quo that a) does not include much, if any, real ministerial responsibility, but b) has managed to produce a lot of reputation-damaging fall-out.

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