*** Canada is the only one to not have one. The Harper govt. is making us look bad on the world stage - and I don't mean because of his missed photo ops either. MS ***
It has a ring of cloak and dagger, with members of Parliament bound to secrecy for life, poring over classified papers at undisclosed locations.
But it's all in a day's work for politicians in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, where permanent committees of security-cleared legislators have existed for years.
And periodically in Canada, House of Commons committees have been entrusted with secrets about the country's intelligence agency, organized crime, defence and foreign affairs matters.
Given that history, some say, all-party efforts underway this week to establish a process through which MPs could see the uncensored versions of Afghan-detainee documents should not be insurmountable.
"Some of the players are just going to have to back off half a step and collaborate a bit more because I have done it, other MPs have done this, other parliaments have done it," says Liberal MP Derek Lee.
Mr. Lee is an advocate of a five-year-old legislative proposal to create a permanent parliamentary "national security committee" comprised of MPs and Senators with access to classified information and bound to an oath of secrecy, as are MPs who are appointed to the federal cabinet.
"Had we passed the bill five years ago that created an intelligence committee, we would have built a mechanism that everyone could see that protected sensitive documents," Mr. Lee said.
"It's that teachable moment that we should have had. It was realized then that it was necessary for Parliament to fulfil its function."
Mr. Lee chaired an all-party Commons-Senate committee in 2004 that forged that legislation, based in part on looking at the U.S., British and Australian models of intelligence and security committees.
The Liberal government of Paul Martin tabled the bill in the Commons in the fall of 2005 but it died when Martin was defeated by the Conservatives a couple of months later.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not revived the bill. Mr. Lee reintroduced it in 2007 as a private member's bill that has not been chosen by lottery for debate.
It is pertinent now, in the wake of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken's ruling this past Tuesday upholding the right of MPs to see uncensored detainee-related documents.
He issued a two-week deadline for the government and three opposition parties to work out a mechanism to protect state secrets while providing MPs with access to the documents.
More than 10,000 pages of documents already tabled in the Commons contain passages blacked out on grounds of potential injury to national security, defence and international affairs.
It is the contents of some of those hidden passages that opposition MPs are demanding to see to assess allegations that government and military officials turned a blind eye to the risk of torture of detainees captured by Canadian armed forces and transferred to Afghan custody.
Mr. Lee says a two-page secrecy protocol for a Commons justice committee study of organized crime in 2000 "was complied with so well that the committee got no publicity at all."
"They did a great job and reported to Parliament and all the information was protected," he said.
Mr. Lee was not a member of that committee but he was on a special 1990-91 Commons committee assigned to see if the then five-year-old Canadian Security Intelligence Service was working out as planned.
"It was closely handled," he recalled. "We weren't sworn [to an official oath of secrecy], but when we saw the sensitive stuff it was not on parliamentary premises and in most cases we did not have staff with us. . . . The documents were retained at the location where they were."
During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative party was in power, New Democratic Party leader Audrey McLaughlin was sworn in as a privy councillor so that she could be given secret information.
Then Liberal leader Jean Chretien was already a privy councillor, bound by a lifelong oath of secrecy. There was no Bloc Quebecois party in the Commons at the time.