A recent committee that didn’t leak secrets

How the House Afghanistan committee can avoid becoming a "leaky sieve"

As all-party talks get rolling into how the House Afghanistan committee might see sensitive documents but also keep state secrets, MPs should look back at the experience of the 2000 Sub-Committee on Organized Crime of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

That sub-committee was created in the spring of 2000 and reported back to the House in the fall. It was chaired by former Liberal MP Paul Devillers, and only a couple of its former members still sit in Parliament—Liberal John McKay and, interestingly enough, Conservative Peter MacKay, now the defence minister. (The surname similarity is a bit confusing, so I’ll used first and last names throughout.)

John McKay tells me that the sub-committee decided when it undertook the study that it could not report usefully without educating itself on how police really investigate organized crime. That meant not only hearing police witnesses in closed sessions, under strict confidence rules, but also traveling to key sites like porous border crossings, docks where illegal smuggling occurs, and locked rooms where police evidence is stored.

These informative field trips and in-camera committee sessions were accomplished after MPs from all parties agreed to be bound by a solemn undertaking not to reveal what they learned. John McKay recalls that at the outset Peter MacKay voiced strong misgivings based on his previous experience as a Crown attorney in Nova Scotia.

“He had some serious reservations about whether the confidences that are necessary would be kept,” said John McKay. “And I think his concern, while valid on the face of it, turned out to be unjustified.”

Unjustified because the committee didn’t end up being a “leaky sieve” (as Ned Franks has put it).

Along with relying on the honour of honourable Members, a number of special steps were taken. Only one transcript of the sub-committee’s in-camera sessions was kept, for example, and it was stored in the committee clerk’s office. The number of miscellaneous House officials who heard what MPs were hearing was held to a minimum; for instance, the committee used only one console operator, the technician who handed recording its sessions, throughout its work.

And when the sub-committee finally issued a report, only its recommendations were included—not the usual explanatory text and lists of witnesses. Overall, a promising case study in confidential committee work on a highly sensitive subject.