Security and accountability in the e-age

Maher Arar, the Ottawa software engineer who was controversially held in Syria for 10 months, does not act like a man with much to hide. Certainly, having achieved an independent inquiry to examine how he, a Canadian citizen, came to be deported from the United States, there is nothing in his past that will not soon come to light.

All to the good, Arar claims, coupling his political crusade in Canada with a legal one in the United States. This spotlight is welcome news and we can be thankful for the tenacity and determination of him and his wife. Their shared plight, and the subsequent actions of the RCMP in raiding an Ottawa journalist’s home, now serve as powerful catalysts for improving our democratic governance.

The pending public inquiry offers a new beginning, or at the very least an opportunity for sober reflections on the measures enacted by governments in response to the events of September 2001. While Arar’s questions are primarily and understandably focused on clearing his name, the inquiry will provide a focal point for a sorely needed public debate, shining light into what The Globe and Mail called “the dark side of the democratic world.”

In a digital world shaped by e-mail, data mining, surveillance and monitoring, and seamless organizational governance, the potential repercussions of this dark side are central to the evolution of e-government. Domestic or homeland security is a field with porous boundaries, the governance of which has much in common with integrated models of more citizen-centric service delivery. Information is shared, and crossing bureaucratic boundaries is a given, with the laudable aim of providing the critical service of security and safety for all.

A notable difference with homeland security, however, lies in the lack of oversight and transparency encompassing normal government operations. In the Internet era, transparency is supposed to be the name of the game. A timely new book by Don Tapscott and David Ticoll warns corporations to prepare for unprecedented probing and reporting on their strategies and decisions. Interestingly, any introductory text on public administration discusses the fishbowl of government life and the many additional dimensions of transparency hovering over public sector activity as compared to the business world.

Yet there are large exceptions, since acting in the public interest can sometimes require limits on the public’s right to know. Policing and justice matters are obvious examples, as independent law enforcement and judiciaries not only safeguard suspects from political persecution, they also provide an important check on public sector corruption.

At the same time, democratic accountability also demands that the police be answerable, blurring this quasi-independent relationship just a bit. The RCMP reports to the Solicitor-General, a member of Cabinet answering to Parliamentarians as the representatives of the people. For Arar, what and when politicians knew (if anything) are murky matters, and the same goes for the RCMP decision to raid a journalist’s home.

Yet this murkiness is built into our system, which is why there were so many different interpretations of Prime Minister Paul Martin’s surprising assessment from Switzerland that the Canadian journalist in question is clearly no criminal. What the Arar affair has revealed is the dangerous deepening of such murky waters beyond policing into an expanded realm of domestic security and anti-terrorism activity. Legislation stemming from the events of late 2001 accorded additional powers to the RCMP to pursue such matters, no doubt in alignment with authorities from allies and neighbours, notably the United States.

Distinguishing between policing and homeland security is nonetheless imperative. In the United States, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, a Cabinet Secretary, answers regularly and publicly to both Houses of Congress. In Canada, we essentially created an ominous hybrid of policing and security with murky accountabilities to government – and without any meaningful separate body of political oversight. Indeed, for some time concern and confusion in Canada have been mounting. The creation of the Deputy Prime Minister’s portfolio of Public Safety raises more questions than answers. If it works well, aside from assigning any blame that may or may not be warranted, an inquiry into the Arar affair can facilitate a meaningful and far-reaching dialogue on the governance of homeland security in Canada.

Yet an inquiry alone will not suffice. Parliament must also reassert its presence in this dialogue, both educating and representing the public in defining the fragile balance between freedom and openness on the one hand, and security and secrecy on the other. Such a balance lies at the heart of our democracy.

Jeffrey Roy ( is an Associate Professor of Governance and Management at the University of Ottawa.

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