National security watchdog says the pandemic is slowing its work

Physical distancing measures meant to keep Canadians safe during the pandemic have had an unintended consequence for the people keeping tabs on the nation’s spies: they can’t always access the classified information they need to do their jobs.

The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), the watchdog set up to monitor the activities of Canada’s national security and intelligence sector, says the pandemic has slowed its work.

“The COVID-19 pandemic caused delays in response times and provision of briefings from departments under review,” said NSIRA spokesperson Tahera Mufti.

“These were compounded by limitations on workers allowed in our own offices at a given time, due to public health considerations.”

The pandemic problems were flagged in NSIRA’s recently published plan for the coming year.

“The physical distancing precautions required by the COVID-19 pandemic might continue to be needed in 2021–22. This would limit employees’ access to NSIRA offices and to classified physical and electronic documents,” says NSIRA’s plan for 2021-2022.

“Such restrictions could slow NSIRA’s ability to deliver on its mandate in a timely way and limit the frequency and type of outreach NSIRA can do in person.”

Because of the nature of the material they work with, NSIRA staff operate in a top secret environment with strict rules about holding, analyzing and exchanging classified security and intelligence information. Those rules make it almost impossible for staff to take work files home.

NSIRA was launched in the wake of the Liberals’ national security legislation overhaul in 2019. It’s tasked with providing independent, expert review of national security and intelligence activities across all federal departments and agencies.

It also reviews all national security complaints against the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment, as well as complaints involving security clearances.

“The resource constraints of those organizations might continue to be compounded next year by disruptions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. This presents a risk of hindering NSIRA’s ability to deliver on its mandate in a timely way,” says the 2021-2022 plan document.

Mufti said the pandemic has slowed NSIRA’s hiring process. The agency employs about 75 people but needs about 100, including many with top secret security clearances.

“The typical challenges associated with hiring highly skilled, security-cleared staff were compounded by the pandemic,” Mufti said.

In its first annual report, started before the pandemic but published late last year, NSIRA found the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service’s use of publicly available geo-location data without a warrant might be breaking the law.

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