Summary Report of the Meeting of the National Security Transparency Advisory Group (NS-TAG) February 2-3, 2020

Agenda Items:

Summary:

The third National Security Transparency Advisory Group (NS-TAG) meeting took place February 2-3 in Ottawa. In addition to NS-TAG members, meeting attendees included Public Safety’s Transparency Secretariat and several members of the interdepartmental National Security Transparency Commitment (NSTC) working group. Representatives from the following departments and agencies attended:

Nine of the ten NS-TAG members attended the meeting. Harpreet Jhinjar was unable to attend.

On Day 1, the NS-TAG started by discussing ideas for forward planning and community outreach. The Group decided to dedicate a half-day of their upcoming two-day meeting in Toronto to hearing from community groups and civil society representatives as part of an outreach activity.Footnote1 The members expressed their desire to keep the outreach activity at a general level to support the final report.

Deputy Minister (DM) of Public Safety Rob Stewart delivered opening remarks and expressed his support for the Group. DM Stewart noted the inherent value of diverse groups coming together to discuss transparency issues and the Group’s potential to help enhance Canadians’ understanding of national security matters.

The Group then heard from Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien and Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard for a discussion on privacy in the digital age and public access to government information. Items of discussion included declassification programs, which facilitate the public release of government documents that were previously secret but no longer pose a national security risk, and the benefits and challenges of data encryption. They also discussed laws and policies surrounding government access to private citizens’ information for national security reasons.

Following this session, the NS-TAG used the remainder of the day to privately discuss plans and ideal outcomes for the Group without government representatives present.

On Day 2, The NS-TAG communicated the results of their discussion the previous day, which included a potential outline of the structure and content of the Group’s first report. Then, the NS-TAG was briefed on the Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada by representatives from Public Safety. Public Safety discussed with NS-TAG members the re-scoping of future iterations of the report. The Group discussed the importance of consulting communities on the report’s content before its release, and understanding the report’s readership using analytics.

The NS-TAG heard from a panel of journalists who discussed their experiences working with national security and intelligence departments and agencies. The panel mentioned challenges accessing historical information through the Access to Information Act. They also noted how the lack of information flow from the government following national security incidents can negatively impact marginalized groups and communities. Inadequate communication surrounding these incidents also creates space for harmful entities to undermine democratic values and institutions. The panel made recommendations to enhance the relationship between the government and the media, which included: conducting interviews in-person or over-the-phone; providing valuable and timely information through press conferences and technical briefings; and proactively sharing information on national security events with the media and the Canadian public.

Assistant Chief of Defence Intelligence Marie-Hélène Chayer briefed the Group on the internal structure and mandate of the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command, part of the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. The group discussed potential future exercises to enhance transparency at the department, including training employees on how to disclose information more effectively and developing fictional scenarios to provide to the public that demystify national security processes while protecting sensitive information.

A panel of civil society representatives spoke with the NS-TAG about the intersections between their work and the government’s national security activities. Panelists referred to various allegations of misconduct within the national security agencies that have come to light in the media. They stressed the importance of enhancing public understanding of national security agencies through accountability and transparency, engaging diverse communities regularly, and addressing issues with workplace culture within the government. They also discussed transparency as it relates to judicial decisions, ministerial directions, and orders in council.

The NS-TAG confirmed their attendance at the forthcoming fourth meeting in Toronto and committed to continuing to discuss their report and other work items in the interim, with the assistance of the Transparency Secretariat.Footnote2

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