The Romans had a saying: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guards themselves? Who watches the watchers?
Critics are condemning the federal government's decision to shut down the independent office that served as the watchdog for Canada's spies. Canadians learned this week that the Office of the Inspector General of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is a victim of Conservative budget cuts.
The office, whose axing was buried in budget documents, played a key role in ensuring Canada's spies don't break the law, Jez Littlewood, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies, told Postmedia News.
"Essentially, the Office of the Inspector General was the eyes and ears of the minister within CSIS," Littlewood said. "So you're getting less accountability."
The office, headed since 2003 by Eva Plunkett, was one of two oversight bodies, the other being the Security Intelligence Review Committee. A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews defended the decision to close the office as a cost-cutting measure.
"It will save taxpayers nearly a million dollars per year," Julie Carmichael said in an email to Postmedia News.
Carmichael said civilian oversight of CSIS will actually be strengthened.
"By consolidating review functions into a single organization we will provide more effective review," she wrote. "Public Safety Canada will also assume a greater responsibility for providing independent advice to the minister."
But NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison said with one less set of eyes on it, CSIS might be tempted to push the legal envelope.
"We have many examples of the kind of things that happen when agencies sometimes get overzealous in what they're doing," he said in Postmedia's story.
"One of the things that constrains their activities is knowing that there's civilian oversight in place that'll do its job and to make sure that they don't get outside the bounds of what is legal and what's appropriate."
Garrison questioned the government's vigilance, noting Toews has not appointed a permanent chairman of the review committee.
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, a former member of the review committee, said the two bodies play different roles. The committee investigates public complaints against CSIS while the inspector general's office oversees its day-to-day activities.
"It double checks and triple checks to make sure the processes are being followed and respected . . . It's hand on," he said.
University of Toronto professor Wesley Wark, who studies the intelligence field, told CBC News he's skeptical the review committee can step into the inspector general's shoes and issue the kind of detailed reports her office provided.
"If it makes mistakes, that can potentially impact on the civil liberties of Canadians who may find themselves subject, and perhaps wrongly, to CSIS investigations," Wark said.