Tony Clement, sexting and the NSICOP

This piece appeared  in The Hill Times on November 19, 2018.

I imagine that most Canadians are already very tired of this story and yet here I am weighing in on it, from the perspective of national security.  To sum up this debacle, not that I think anyone does not know the salacious details, MP Tony Clement engaged in what was first a one-off sharing of sexually-explicit material online but which quickly morphed into a series of inappropriate actions.  It also seems that he has been subject to extortion/blackmail on at least two occasions and to his credit he appears to have alerted the necessary authorities fairly quickly, although the old adage ‘once burned twice shy’ did not give him pause to reconsider his actions.

A lot of the discussion over the past few days has centred on two primary aspects of these incidents: what an MP thought he was doing by sending naughty pictures over the Internet and what an MP who serves on the National Security Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), the body that oversees Canada’s spy agencies and hence had access to very sensitive material, thought he was doing by sending naughty pictures over the Internet and thereby opened himself up to extortion.  I will focus exclusively on the latter and leave the former to the moralists.

NSICOP was created in November of 2017 following the passing of Bill C-22, the “National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians Act”.  Mr. Clement was one of eight MPs (in addition to three senators) named to the committee at that time (he has since left NSICOP).  This body is charged with the oversight of some 17 federal government agencies which have a role in national security, including the three heavyweights: CSIS, CSE and the RCMP.  Canada was the last of the so-called ‘5 eyes’ countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US) to create such a review agency.  In light of Mr. Clement’s moves some are questioning the future of NSICOP.

The situation is not as dire as some think but the impact on NSICOP is not irrelevant either.  Firstly, there is no sign in the public domain that Mr. Clement was targeted because of his membership on the committee, was asked by the extortionist for sensitive intelligence or handed over such information.  Secondly, although I am not privy to what NSICOPpers discuss, I’d be very surprised if it consisted of the machinery of sensitive intelligence operations.  Allow me to explain.  Security intelligence and law enforcement agencies are very protective, for good reasons, about two aspects of their jobs: sources and methods.  Keeping both of these secret are the sine non qua of the spy world: disclosing either, which is done rarely and only when absolutely necessary, is disastrous as it leads to losses on both fronts (human sources get killed and adversaries move to other, more secure methods of communicating).  I doubt whether the parliamentary attendees at NSICOP meetings get into those kinds of details.  There is also the overarching ‘need to know’ principle: if you do not need to know something, you don’t.

Still, the committee has taken a hit.  A member has acted egregiously and put both the reputation and mandate of the body at risk.  Spies and cops are already loath to talk about their work to outsiders and Mr. Clement’s escapades could make them more loath.  That would be unfortunate as NSICOP is a necessary group that sheds some much needed light into an otherwise dark world.

Overall, this affair should tell Parliament and the NSICOP secretariat that perhaps a review of security clearances  is in order.  Members should have to undergo the same level of scrutiny I did when I worked for CSIS: it is unclear whether that transpired.  As Mr. Clement’s actions appear to have predated his nomination to the committee it is incumbent on those who selected  him to have known about them and their potential harm to national security.

In the end it does not appear that irreparable damage was caused to Canada’s national security apparatus. The whole thing is embarrassing, yes, but not fatal.  I cannot imagine Canada’s 5 eyes partners are too happy with all this – after all they share with us on the understanding we will duly protect their intelligence – but the alliance is not on the verge of dissolution.  Nevertheless, changes are required to ensure to the extent possible that a repeat is not on the horizon.

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