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The Doctor of Panama: A strange tale of Harperite politics and national security

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Arthur Porter

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It's almost bizarre, and almost certainly driven by political expediency, that no one seems to have so much as commented on the serious security implications posed by Arthur Porter's troubles with the law.

Dr. Porter, as is by now well known, is the former head of what's constantly referred to in journalistic shorthand as "Canada's spy agency watchdog," the federal Security Intelligence Review Committee.

But despite the fact that earlier this week he was arrested in Panama on Canadian fraud charges, no one seems to be paying much attention how or why Porter got to be the chairman of SIRC, or what that means for national security in the context of his current troubles.

Those troubles are a tangled web that include: a stint as CEO of the $1.3-billion health facility at Montreal's McGill University, which appears to have ended badly with the university claiming he owes it money; a key role in a seemingly dodgy $120-million consulting scheme to build infrastructure in his native Sierra Leone, apparently brokered by an ex-Israeli arms dealer who faced charges in the United States of selling restricted materials to Iran; and his departure from Canada after being linked by investigators to Quebec's corruption scandal that was followed by a period of residence in the extradition-treaty-free jurisdiction of the Bahamas.

When the Quebec police said they wanted to speak with Porter about allegations stemming from the corruption scandal, the Cambridge trained medical doctor and cancer specialist had already decamped to the Caribbean, where he said he was too ill with cancer to leave Nassau.

When he nevertheless showed up this week with his wife at the airport in Panama, travelling on a Sierra Leonean diplomatic passport and apparently on his way to somewhere else, both were nabbed by the local authorities. Arrangements have been set in motion to return him to Quebec where he is said to face charges of fraud, conspiracy to commit government fraud, abuse of trust, secret commissions and laundering the proceeds of a crime.

In broad strokes, that's the story so far, but the key point Canadians should be worrying about is that Porter was appointed in 2008 by the Harper Government for reasons we can only speculate upon to serve as a member of SIRC and that he became chair of that body in 2010.

Porter resigned from SIRC in November 2011 when, as the CBC reported at the time, details of both his failed West African business plans and his absence from his job at the McGill Health Centre became the subjects of journalistic attention.

Now, the SIRC, according to its web page, "is an independent, external review body which reports to the Parliament of Canada on the operations of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service."

So the first thing we can be confident of is that with the control-freak Harper government, members of the SIRC are bound to have been effectively appointed directly by the Prime Minister's Office.

The SIRC has "the absolute authority to examine all information concerning CSIS activities, no matter how sensitive and highly classified that information may be," the website goes on to say. (Emphasis added.) The results of the committee's efforts, suitably edited "to protect national security and personal privacy," are put in an report on CSIS activities that is sent each year to Parliament.

While the vetting process currently used by Canada's state security agencies is not entirely clear, probably with good reason, to quote again from SIRC's web pages, "all of the Committee members must be Privy Councillors, which means that they have full access to highly classified information, a privilege which is not granted to most Parliamentarians."

So this is a serious matter. It goes without saying that this means members of the committee, including Porter, got to see material that genuinely could have an impact on the national security of Canada and the individual safety of many Canadians at home and abroad.

Now, we've come a long way from the days when the RCMP security services immediately entertained suspicions a Canadian public servant might be gay, and therefore in their view vulnerable to blackmail by agents of foreign powers, if the public employee in questions was seen driving a white car. (Or so says no less an authority on the topic than investigative journalist John Sawatsky.)

But while this example now seems both quaint and offensive, security services are nevertheless right to watch for hints of financial, personal and ideological circumstances that within the context of the time might make a person with access to classified information vulnerable to coercion by people who don't have the country's interests at heart.

Just consider the sad case of Jeffrey Deslisle, the naval sub-lieutenant with personal and financial problems who not so long ago sold Canadian military secrets to Russia's foreign espionage agency with, we are repeatedly told, potentially disastrous consequences for our relationship with our allies.

While this is not to suggest any improper action by Porter in his role as a SIRC member, such factors as difficulties at work that led to the loss of his job, disputes over large sums of money, involvement in investigations by police of criminal activities, involvement with dubious foreign nationals and a sudden departure from the country at a time of personal turmoil all suggest obvious points of vulnerability for an individual who had recent access to important national security secrets.

Surely this must have been apparent to the security services. And surely it must have been apparent to the prime minister's staff.

So what efforts were made to ensure that Porter was an appropriate person in whose hands to entrust state secrets? And what efforts were made to ensure that nothing secret went astray after he had hastily departed from the homeland, seemingly on the lam?

Porter seems a peculiar choice for this job. He was not a career politician, like the four current members of the SIRC. Nor does he appear to have a background in state security issues.

Could it be -- and we can only speculate, because this is the sort of secret the Harper government guards closely -- that he was chosen as part of a political effort to woo visible minority communities to support for the Harper government?

Indeed, one gets the sense that not very much checking was done on Porter's personal secrets at all, which is hardly reassuring to ordinary Canadians and possibly even less so to our close "Five Eyes" allies in the secret world.

But if true, this should surprise no one. While it is safe to say the Harper Government can be depended upon to act consistently in the political interests of the Harper government, it is much less certain this group ever acts in the security interests of our country.

It is also fair to say that when it comes to acting in the interests of political allies and people who can deliver an advantage to the Conservative Party -- whether in the Senate, in China's state-owned petroleum industry or on the SIRC, it would seem -- neither the rules that apply to everyone else nor common sense hold much sway.

Thus the current chair of SIRC, former Reform Party, Canadian Alliance and Conservative MP and Harper ally Chuck Strahl, is also the chair of the Manning Centre, a highly partisan Calgary-based think tank and training centre tied through founder Preston Manning directly to Harper's party.

This obviously inappropriate dual role appears to trouble no one in the PMO, so it should hardly surprise us if it turns out to be part of a larger pattern that has afflicted other appointments within SIRC, as well as in in the Senate, the PMO and a host of other places where the prime minister can place his cronies.

It's just that when it comes to national security, the risks of decisions made with only political expediency in mind have the potential to be quite severe.

Canadians deserve to know if their security has now been put at risk by the prime minister's political machinations.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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