If a 50-something politician shares photos with a young woman online, who knows who the paramour at the other end is? It could be a malevolent gold-digger or it could also be the agent of a foreign power anxious for access to Canada’s security intelligence oversight.
Sometimes I worry that when it comes to confronting the threats of 2018, Canada is not really a serious country.
Whether it’s cracking down on money laundering, prosecuting companies for foreign bribery or going after tax evaders who stash their money in distant tax havens, Canada has a pretty pathetic record. International agencies have frequently given us poor grades for lackadaisical or non-existent policing of threats to the integrity of our financial and taxation systems.
In the money laundering business, there’s even a Canadian form of the practice—snow washing.
It’s the unfortunate consequence of Canada’s boy scout self-image. We really believe we’re all good guys. You’ve heard it, the world needs more Canada –- so we naively discount the possibility of potentially dangerous behaviour conducted in our country and by our own citizens.
It seems the same goes for our approach to the oversight of national security issues. It’s been a few weeks now since Tony Clement was tossed out of the Conservative Party caucus and resigned from parliamentary committees after he got caught up in a sexting scandal.
Initially, the 57-year-old MP admitted to a single incident where he had exchanged sexually explicit images and video with a woman who tried to extort money from him. Soon, we found out that this was part of a long pattern of similarly creepy, irresponsible behaviour where he would befriend young women on social media whose photos he liked and pursued online relationships with them.
How a one-time senior cabinet minister in the Harper government could have such terrible personal judgment and hold high office is one thing. We all know that holding public office unfortunately doesn’t automatically mean you have character and don’t act like a jerk.
But the real scandal involving Clement is how in the world he managed to get the security clearance needed to sit on the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Politicians, the new special panel of MPs and senators designed to provide real oversight of agencies with a role in national security including CSIS, the Communications Security Establishment and the RCMP.
That reckless behaviour didn’t just threaten Clement and his personal relationships, it threatened Canada’s national security.
Until recently, Canada was the only one of the Five Eyes allies – Britain, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Australia and Canada – without a committee of high-powered legislators able to serve as effective watchdogs over security issues and with access to top-secret briefings and materials.
The previous oversight committee was considered ineffective and a bit of a joke, particularly after it turned out that its one-time chair, Dr. Arthur Porter, had been involved in a bizarre financial scheme involving a former Israeli intelligence agent and a project in Zimbabwe.
Porter quit as chair and was charged in 2013 with accepting a $22.5 million bribe in connection with the construction contract won by SNC-Lavalin for the $1.3 billion McGill University Health Centre in Montreal. Porter, who headed the hospital, died of cancer in 2015 in Panama, where he was being held while fighting extradition to Canada.
What became apparent was that Porter was only subject to a limited background check before chairing the security committee and never had been required to get a formal security clearance.
One would think that after that fiasco, the Privy Council Office and security agencies would make sure that any members of the new committee had the most rigorous screening possible.
Whatever screening Clement got, it somehow seems to have glossed over the most potent and widespread security threat out there today –- social media. He was apparently a big fan of Instagram and shared God-knows-what with young women whose pictures caught his fancy there.
Pathetic, but also dangerous. Social media is fertile territory for intelligence agencies these days, whether it’s the Russians, the Chinese or the Israelis. Top secret clearance is presumably there to weed out applicants with big debts, associations with dodgy foreigners and sketchy personal behaviour — anything that could make that person subject to extortion or other threats.
If a 50-something politician shares photos with a young woman online or cruises dating sites, who knows who the paramour at the other end is? It could be simply a malevolent gold-digger. It could also be the agent of a foreign power anxious for access to the workings of Canada’s parliamentary security intelligence oversight body.
How Clement ever got on the committee is disturbing. And did he ever get a briefing on the dangers of uncontrolled social media activity? Was he told to stop his dangerous habit?
Although I’ve seen the argument made that MPs have a right to private lives and that their activities online should not be monitored, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that any holder of this level of security clearance should be told to stay away from all social media, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
If politicians value their social media presence so highly, then find somebody else to be on the oversight panel. Of course, that’s only if you think Canada is actually a serious place with secrets worth protecting.