Transparency and secrecy remain an issue, and systemic racism and biases need to be addressed, a report from the government’s advisory group shows.

(This article has been translated into French.)

The national security community in Canada has traditionally not been very transparent. Of course, some information held by its institutions must remain classified. At the same time, transparency is essential to the health of a democracy. Agencies such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Communications Security Establishment and the Canada Border Services Agency need to be perceived as legitimate by the society they seek to protect.

Transparency also helps ensure that national security professionals are held to account when transgressions arise. When security agencies are too secretive, it is more difficult for citizens to trust them. This reinforces a dynamic of suspicion.

It is in this context that the Government of Canada announced the establishment of the National Security Transparency Advisory Group in 2019 as part of a series of broad reforms to the national security and intelligence architecture. The NS-TAG, composed of 11 members with diverse backgrounds from academia, civil society and retired public servants, is an external advisory group providing advice to the deputy minister of public safety (and to other national security departments and agencies) on how to improve transparency. It also aims to increase public awareness, engagement and access to national security information.

We spent our first year talking to officials from the national security community and to a range of stakeholders in civil society. The result, NS-TAG’s first report, provides an overview of the state of transparency today and highlights areas where there are significant needs for improvement.

First, the national security community’s dominant reflex is to keep information as secret as possible. This lack of transparency can have unintended consequences, as the information gap is more likely to be filled with misinformation or raise suspicions.

Second, as digital and open government reforms have expanded in recent years, there has been growing recognition of the benefits of enhanced information-sharing within and outside of government. Much work remains to be done in Canada, despite recent improvement. Change must come from the top – leaders can and should be more open and transparent – and from the bottom, notably through better training and awareness.

Secrecy surrounding national security oversight mechanisms and legal proceedings is another area in which added transparency is crucial in fostering public trust. Even in ordinary criminal and civil legal proceedings, the open court principle has limits. National security proceedings are no exception. Nevertheless, maximizing transparency here could also assist in reducing the trust deficit.

Challenges in the information management realm also impede efforts to enhance transparency. Canada, in particular, does not have a comprehensive declassification strategy, significantly hampering the release of older classified documents. The access to information process is widely criticized for being painstakingly slow, and documents tend to be released only once they have been excessively redacted.

As governments gather and process data from a broadening range of sources, many have raised concerns about risks to personal privacy. National security agencies should therefore also be more transparent on how they access, share and analyze data involving the identities and actions of members of the public.

And, finally, national security agencies must better acknowledge that systemic racism and unconscious biases exist within them. If they do not address this, they risk failing to detect and act upon certain threats. Many members of Indigenous, Black, racialized, marginalized, and other minority communities mistrust national security agencies, and their interactions with these government bodies often exacerbate these tensions.

With this work behind us, the NS-TAG will look to produce two more reports in our second year. The next one will focus on the measurement and institutionalization of transparency. Indeed, having a foundational understanding of what transparency is, how to measure it and how to assess progress is essential to improve it.

For enhanced transparency to be sustainable, it must be institutionalized. New structures and processes must “hardwire” transparency into the national security community’s everyday work. The follow-up report, to be released later in 2021, will study relations between national security agencies and racialized and other minority communities. For this, we will reach out to individuals and organizations from various communities and to the agencies themselves.

Photo: Shutterstock.com, by Ralf Geithe