If there is one spy agency in Canada that is poorly understood and about which much of little veracity has been published it has to be CSE – Communications Security Establishment. CSE has a number of roles but the one that gets the most public attention is signals intelligence or SIGINT. This method of intelligence collection entails capturing telecommunications in a variety of forms by a variety of techniques, few of which are known (NB this is indeed a good thing: the spy agency that openly shares how it gathers intelligence will not be in the spy business very long. This may sound sacrilege to some, but some things need to remain secret).
CSE is not a law enforcement agency and does not go to court to acquire warrants to collect information, unlike CSIS and the RCMP. It is limited to the collection of intelligence outside Canada and it cannot include Canadians (or Americans, British, Australians and New Zealanders for that matter – Canada’s so-called “5 eyes”partners) in its dragnet.
And yet, some information pertaining to Canadians has apparently been picked up, and the scale of that collection appears to be on the upswing, according to a National Post article this week. Should Canadians be worried?
It is hard to say but I will go with no. Before I explain why I think that there are limited circumstances under which CSE should be able to collect information on Canadians it would be remiss not to note that I worked for that organisation for almost 20 years. I knew how it operated very well in the pre-9/11 period but would not purport to be an expert on how it operates now. Nevertheless, I am certain that the same rigour and observance of Canadian law, as well as internal policies, are being followed today much as they were when I was there.
We do not know precisely what kinds of information were collected but there is a particular circumstance under which Canadian communications should and must be intercepted by CSE and I think that Canadians would agree with me.
Much discussion has been held in recent years over how and whether CSE should assist other Canadian security agencies – i.e. CSIS and the RCMP – in their lawful investigations. CSE’s partners do take action to monitor threats like terrorism and they have a suite of tools with which to do so. In addition, they do a very good job but on rare occasions could use the help of an agency like CSE.
Consider the following scenario. Either CSIS (under its Section 21 powers) or the RCMP (Part VI) have successfully obtained a warrant to capture the communications of a person under investigation. These warrants are granted by Federal Court judges once these agencies provide compelling arguments as to why they need these intrusive powers (not a rubber stamp process by any stretch) and apply to communications within Canada. But what if the subject of investigation high tails it to Somalia or Syria or Afghanistan? Not only do Canadian warrants not apply in those countries, but it would be next to impossible to get local law enforcement or intelligence agencies there to cooperate with us. That is where CSE could assist.
I have absolutely no issue with CSE helping either the RCMP or CSIS collect an individual’s communications while outside the country when they already have such powers within Canada. Having access to this information can assist ongoing investigations and could make a difference in stopping a terrorist act or not. We have seen instances,here and abroad, where terrorists have traveled to some hotspot, received training and returned to their homeland to kill and maim people. Having that extra information should not be seen as injurious to privacy concerns or outside CSE’s remit.
As I have said many, many times, we need an adult conversation in this country on what is reasonable to expect from our intelligence agencies and what they need to keep us safe. We have to stop relying for information on pseudo experts and engage in meaningful dialogue. CSE has a lot of resources and tools at its disposal and it should not be handcuffed in its efforts to help keep us safe.