CSIS is damned when it does and damned when it doesn’t

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on June 24, 2019.

Cast a sympathetic eye on Canada’s spy agency, CSIS (when is the last time someone asked that of you?). It is subject to incredibly intense scrutiny from all sides and also to oversight from multiple angles. This is, of course, as it should be since CSIS has extraordinary powers to collect and retain information in the furtherance of national security and public safety protection. With great powers come great responsibility so they say (I think I got that from the first Spiderman movie). We live in a democracy after all and our security organisations should not be able to run roughshod over our hard-fought freedoms.

But at times some of the things said or written about our premier spy agency strike me as a desire on the part of some to have one’s cake and eat it too. A story on the CBC Web page drew my attention this morning, a report which illustrates how CSIS is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. A bunch of historians are vilifying the agency for destroying a Cold War dossier on Pierre Trudeau in 1989 instead of turning it over to the national archives. For the record, the dossier was NOT a CSIS file but one it inherited from the RCMP Security Service, which CSIS effectively replaced upon its creation in 1984. The elder Trudeau was of interest from a national security perspective due to his ‘relationship’ with Rene Levesque, former head of the Parti Quebecois and a man bent on splitting the country apart. Do I have to remind you that there was a violent part of the Quebec separatist movement (FLQ Crisis anyone?) and that monitoring these people was squarely within the old Security Service mandate (probably either under the political violence – i.e. terrorism clause – or subversion)?

The fact that the files – now 60 years old – were deep-sixed instead of being stored in perpetuity has the historians’ collective knickers in a knot. If I were a historian, one that focused on national security, I might be miffed too as a primary source of a particular period in Canadian history has been lost. Except that CSIS actually had no choice but to get rid of the material. As an internal study found in 1988, the files did not meet the threshold in the CSIS Act to justify being kept in the Service’s active inventory and also fell short of criteria for preservation set out by the national archives. As CSIS itself wrote in defence of its move: “CSIS takes privacy considerations related to its work very seriously. We are committed to ensuring that the retention of information continues to be in compliance with all legislation and ministerial direction.”

There are several aspects to this tempest in a teapot that worry me. Firstly, there are those that criticise CSIS (and CSE as well) of collecting and retaining too much information on Canadians in the first place. Why, then, would people slam CSIS for destroying intelligence which has no bearing on a legitimate investigation? FYI, this happens all the time. When you amass intelligence, say through a federal court intercept warrant, you get the whole shebang, juicy intel and irrelevant garbage. You keep the former and ditch the latter. Is this not what Canadians want?

Secondly for those who say now, in 2019, that monitoring Rene Levesque and the separatist movement was unnecessary as the threat was never that serious in the first place, where was YOUR crystal ball back in 1959? I really dislike attempts to view events and contemporary situations through the prism of hindsight. That the Quebec independence desire faded in recent years was of no help a half century ago. When you work in intelligence you view your world through the lens of what you know or can reasonably extrapolate now, not fifty years from now . That the Security Service is seen today to have been wrong all those years ago is nothing more than mildly interesting. And for one historian to say that the CSIS destruction of the Trudeau file is “expected of an authoritarian state and not a proper democracy that values its history” is nothing more than laughable histrionics.

I’ll tell you what fellow Canadians. Make up your mind. Either you want a security service that has the tools and powers to make us safe or you don’t. Pick one. At the same time, when it carries out actions required under law to eliminate stuff that is not threat-related don’t lament from the rooftops. Eat your cake or have it. The two are not possible together.

Phil Gurski is the President of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and was a strategic analyst at CSIS from 2001-2015.

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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