Has CSIS been getting counter terrorism wrong all these years? Nope.

OK, OK, I am a little sensitive when it comes to articles on CSIS. I did work there for 15 years after all and was (and still am) very proud of what I and my colleagues did to help keep Canadians safe. No, we were not perfect but I think we did our best.

So when I read an op-ed in Sunday’s Toronto Star that essentially said that we had been focusing on the wrong terrorist threat for years I naturally paused. Actually I got mad. Really mad.

I first looked to see who had written the article: two Muslim chaplains at Canadian universities (Waterloo and Ryerson/Toronto). In other words, two people who are probably pretty smart (for the record, I have spoken fruitfully on many occasions with Muslim religious leaders so I have no inherent negative views on these leaders) and from whom one could have expected a well-thought-out argument. Boy was I wrong.

Now for the content. There is so much inaccuracy in this article that I scarcely know where to begin. Buckle up – this blog might be longer than usual.

Let’s start at the very beginning, shall we? Here is the opening line:

“Being surveilled or receiving surprise visits or phone calls from Canada’s spy and law enforcement agencies is an all too familiar experience for Muslims at various university campuses and mosques across the country.”

Really? Firstly, if Muslims know they are being surveilled by CSIS that agency’s agents are really lousy spies: surveillance is supposed to go undetected. Secondly, and I happen to actually know this, surveillance resources are very, very limited and CSIS does not deploy these teams willy-nilly. Ergo, the first sentence is inaccurate. No organisation has the option of doing surveillance without cause.

The same goes for ‘phone calls’. CSIS calls Canadians it believes may have information that can assist the Service in investigations it conducts under the terms of the CSIS Act. A phone call does not entail that CSIS thinks any particular Canadian Muslim is the spawn of Usama bin Laden. Get over your sense of self-importance: CSIS calls all kinds of people. Hell, I have even been called in to assist in an investigation post-retirement in light of something I was witness to.

The article goes on: Muslim chaplains “have had to help several students cope with these confusing, traumatic and arbitrary events.”

  1. They are not ‘arbitrary’ as already noted;
  2. They are confusing because Canadians have a poor sense of what CSIS is and what it does; and
  3. They may be traumatic for similar reasons although I will not rule out poor CSIS PR.

Then again there may be underlying rationales, i.e. previous intelligence, to justify the CSIS approach.

Let’s continue, shall we?

“(CSIS) continues to wrongfully concentrate its anti-terrorism efforts on the Muslim community, despite the dangerous rise of activities within white supremacist movements.”

This statement is laughable and points to an alarming lack of understanding on the part of the authors re the reality of terrorism in Canada and around the world. I have made this point many, many times before so I won’t belabour it here. Suffice to say that while, yes, right-wing extremism does need more attention it is completely indefensible to claim that the far right poses a threat anywhere near that of jihadis on a worldwide scale.

Bear in mind as well that CSIS’ mandate when it comes to advising the government on the terrorist menace is NOT limited to our shores. I am pretty sure that my former colleagues have upped their game on the far right but they simply cannot do so at the expense of the Islamist extremist problem.

And there’s more!

“But going after Muslims is misguided because it focuses on a community of faith rather than on criminal behaviour.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG! I spent 15 years at CSIS studying and analysing Islamist terrorism and we all knew that while it was (and still is) our investigative priority we were looking at a small number of Canadians. We saw the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of Canadian Muslims as assets – whether as potential sources or helpful concerned compatriots who knew something to assist us.

We did NOT see Islam as inherently the problem. In that we were somewhat different than certain politicians whom I will leave unnamed. Pay attention: investigations ARE based on behaviour (albeit not necessarily criminal as CSIS is not a law enforcement agency) NOT preconceived notions or prejudices.

And more:

“Security will never come from demonizing communities or intimidating students on campus.” Agreed. That is why CSIS does not ‘demonise’ anyone. Argument overturned. “In fact, this course of action probably played a significant role in the rise of right wing hate in the first place.” There is little question that the surge in Islamist terrorism has spawned far right terrorism. There is no possible truth in blaming legal and justified CSIS activities for this co-existence.

“…our government has given into anti-Islamic fears that have resulted in a Rambo-like culture in intelligence agencies. And that has led to the circumvention of basic rights, such as the need for evidence, government accountability and equality before the law, because they were seen as obstacles to security.”

Methinks Messrs. Dwyer and Lawendy have seen one too many Jason Bourne films. The men and women I worked with were very professional agents, not bandana-clad third rate actors. Were they perfect? Of course not. Were they guilty of a “circumvention of basic rights”? Ditto.

Here is a whopper.

“…resources continue to be invested in surveilling level-headed, high-achieving, active and religious Muslim students.”

Wow. This one claim above all demonstrates an appalling lack of understanding by the authors on what Islamist terrorism is all about. Study after study after study, including many of my own, have demonstrated categorically that many Islamist extremists are “level-headed, high-achieving, active and religious.” CSIS investigates terrorism based on information that constitutes ‘reasonable grounds to suspect’ terrorist links, NOT on any profile of people.

It is not until the end of the piece that I actually found anything I could kinda agree with:

“It’s time for our government, the RCMP and CSIS to curb the surveillance culture and sit at the table with Muslim organizations such as the National Canadian Council of Muslims, the Muslim Association of Canada, and Muslim Student Associations on campuses to regain the trust of Canadian Muslims. To meet the challenges of the day, our intelligence apparatus needs to recalibrate and graduate out of their prevalent 9/11 mindset.”

100 % agreed: talk-talk is always better than war-war to cite Winston Churchill and I will give CSIS credit for its openness to dialogue (unless much has changed since my retirement). At the same time surveillance (not ‘surveillance culture’) is a valuable intelligence tool. But to say that we need to ‘graduate’ out of a 9/11 mindset ignores the simple, incontrovertible fact that Islamist terrorism still poses, BY FAR, the single greatest extremist violence threat to Canada and just about every other country on this planet.

As I have written on many occasions, we do need to find and assign more resources to other terrorist threats like that of the far right, but we cannot do that at the expense of keeping an eye on the jihadis. We did something similar after 9/11 by robbing the counter intelligence teams for counter terrorism bodies and look where that got us (i.e. Russian and Chinese interference in Canadian affairs).

I could end this by snarking that only the Toronto Star would print a very poor piece like this. Instead, I will take what I see as a higher road. We collectively need more exchanges on national security and public safety and yes CSIS has to get better at explaining what it does. At the same time, however, cheap shots from the cheap seats help no one.

A word of advice: if you plan to write an op-ed piece critical of CSIS please do your homework first. If not, you look ridiculous.

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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