Can we please stop lionising terrorists and extremists?

Now that the recommendations of the Iacobucci Commission in Canada have finally been implemented and three Canadians who claim to have been tortured in Syria with the alleged complicity of the Canadian government and CSIS have settled their case, it is time for a comment.  A few weeks have passed and I for one can now make a few observations in a little less emotional way.

Before I do so I need to make it clear that I have no intention of looking at the specifics of that case or of any other for reasons both personal and legal.  I happened to work at CSIS when a lot of this was going on and I am still bound to restrictions placed on me then and now.  So please take my words as a general commentary.

I would like to frame these remarks by recalling something that former CSIS Director Jim Judd once said (I think he said it publicly but I couldn’t find it): we in Canada really have to stop ‘lionising’ terrorists and people who mean to do us harm.  I could not agree with Mr. Judd more.

What he was referring to was our bizarre practice in this country as seeing anyone who goes public about being of interest to CSIS or the RCMP as an innocent citizen caught up in a Kafkaesque state character assassination.  The media often portray these people as average Canadians who never did anything – ever – worthy of the attention of our spies and cops. It is as if CSIS and the RCMP practice what I have called ‘telephone book profiling’ – the random opening of a phone book every morning and deciding to harass (i.e. investigate) the first name your finger lands on (eyes closed of course).  Sound ridiculous?  I hope so for it is.  Our protectors don’t have the luxury of time or resources to waste on non-threats.

Watch any documentary – The Fifth Estate, W5, etc. – and you will see that the alleged ‘terrorists’ get all kinds of time to complain about being followed/interrogated/tortured and are never called to answer why they think that they may have appeared on the government radar.  You will also notice very little time allotted to the government side.  This is of course largely due to the fact that no government will talk on the record about ongoing investigations or court cases.  All understandable, but the state does itself no favours by not providing context to help comprehend why they do the investigations they do. Even when someone does present a defence for state agencies (NB I have done so on several occasions), this gets short shrift and is almost always edited in a way to undermine the argument being made.  It is as if the broadcasters have decided that the public is much more interested in listening to uncorroborated claims made by the victims rather than present a balanced report.  Whatever the motivation, Canadians are not getting the whole picture.

The bottom line is that CSIS and the RCMP have reasonable grounds to suspect/believe that a threat to national security exists and that is why they have the mandate to carry out investigations.  And those investigations are justified on those grounds and have both stopped terrorist acts and saved lives.  For that they deserve our gratitude.

So can we for once not join the ‘woe is us’ brigade of Canadians who have tried to convince the nation that they were of interest to state security agencies unnecessarily and irresponsibly?  Yes, where there were mistakes made and people suffered we can look at compensation – we do that pretty well  in this land.  But to take someone’s story at face value and treat them as some kind of hero for coming forward is not commendable.  As an aside, we call this kind of information ‘single-source uncorroborated’ and that is rarely a good way to gather intelligence.

Sorry, the true heroes of this tale are the men and women of CSIS and the RCMP, not those whom they have investigated.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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