Hey environmental activists – chill out over CSIS attention!

When you work for an intelligence service like CSIS you don’t get a fair shake.  Your activities are mistrusted, you are seen as engaging in illegal acts, you are seen as bullies, you are seen as too secretive, you are blamed when things go wrong (i.e. terrorist plots succeed), the list goes on and on and on….  It is so rare to see any story that says “Well done CSIS!  We are so fortunate to have you on our side”.

I do not list those issues to complain or seek sympathy.  I do so just to point out that what CSIS does and why is hard to  understand – in part because of the secrecy – and I believe that the Service’s mandate and actions are largely misrepresented.  A prime example came up this morning when I read an article by the Canadian Press’ Jim Bronskill about CSIS when it collected  information about otherwise peaceful anti-petroleum groups in the process of investigating legitimate threats to projects such as oil pipelines.  The groups targeted claim that CSIS attention has had a ‘chilling effect’ on members and they say the spy agency ‘overstepped’ it legal authority in investigating them.

Chill out activists.  What CSIS did is 100% consistent with its mandate and the law.

Firstly, it should be pointed out that the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), the body tasked with oversight of CSIS activities, found after an exhaustive review that the Service had acted entirely within its mandate and that the ‘chilling effect’ was not ‘directly’ tied to its investigations.  It is unfortunate that much of the report, which has been around for some time, is blacked out  – a point I will return to below – but I do know that SIRC has complete and unfettered access to CSIS data and its rulings are unbiased.

Secondly, the reason why CSIS was interested in the activities of environmental, anti-pipeline groups was also consistent with its legislation.  Section 12 of the CSIS Act reads “The Service shall collect, by investigation or otherwise, to the extent that it is strictly necessary, and analyse and retain information and intelligence respecting activities that may on reasonable grounds be suspected of constituting threats to the security of Canada and, in relation thereto, shall report to and advise the Government of Canada (emphasis added).”  Threats are defined in section 2 of the Act and the clause that pertains here is 2c) “activities within or relating to Canada directed toward or in support of the threat or use of acts of serious violence against persons or property for the purpose of achieving a political, religious or ideological objective…”

The bottom line here is that CSIS has the authority to look into potential acts of ideologically-motivated violence  when there are reasonable grounds to suspect such acts.  Not after they have occurred.  Not with the goal of collecting evidence to go to court.  Not with the intent to prevent such acts, at least not directly.  With the aim of advising government about potential acts of serious violence.

Is it possible that some small subsection of the legitimate environmental movement could embrace violent methods one day?  Of course it is!  No cause is immune from violence should frustrated members feel that their message is being ignored and we are hurtling to hell in a handbasket, especially in light of all the evidence of global warming and climate change.  When you are convinced we are all doomed you might decide that a little violence could grab peoples’ attention and get the debate moving in a direction you want to see it go  in.

In this case CSIS reiterated that it “is not in the business of investigating environmentalists because they are advocating for an environmental cause, period,” but that it does have the “need for ‘domain awareness’ to identify potential triggers and flashpoints’ — in part to ensure the service is aware of what is happening should a threat arise.”  As I noted that is precisely why you have an intelligence service, to act as an early warning system.  If its digging turns up no real threat, CSIS moves on to the next investigation: this happens all the time.

So, in the end, no harm no foul.  CSIS acted legally, no action was taken to interfere with legitimate protest action, and everyone should just calm down.  Yes, CSIS can do a better job, as the SIRC report noted, to “widen the circle of its public security discussions to include environmental and other civil society groups.”  I have been advocating greater openness for years.

But I fear that when it comes to CSIS investigation of leftist groups it will always be a case of oil and water – not a lot of mixing or understanding.

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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