Who should our spies spy on?

In the wake of news out of Quebec that police in that province were given court warrants to intercept the communications of journalists, it turns out that CSIS cannot rule out the possibility that sometime over its 30+ year history that it too listened in on some members of the fifth estate.  In a session of the senate standing committee on national security and defence in Ottawa yesterday (November 28), a senior CSIS official noted that the Service would never investigate someone just because that person happened to be a journalist but that if that person engaged in activities spelled out in section 2 of the CSIS Act then she or he could have come under scrutiny. Another senior CSIS agent noted that “there are no safe havens” for those kinds of activities (terrorism, espionage, foreign interference).  CSIS was also careful to add that it fully recognises the “sensitivity” surrounding institutions such as the media and academia and that as a result investigations in those sectors are held to higher thresholds.

Cue the outrage.

This is of course coming on the heels of a federal court ruling that CSIS “illegally” held on to metadata it had collected under warrant for use in counter terrorism investigations.  Canadians are probably angry at what seems to be yet another overreach by CSIS and we can probably expect calls for more oversight and reining in those cowboy spies.

And yet, as with most stories on national security and intelligence in this country, there is a lot missing.  Context for instance.  And a sober look at the facts and what is really happening here.

Some Canadians undoubtedly feel that CSIS uses its mandate to target and investigate communities or sectors it has decided require such action.  Unfortunately, this would be a huge misconstrual of what CSIS does and why it does it.

The bottom line is that CSIS does not target anyone without cause.  The Service carries out investigations when it gets information that an individuals (or several individuals) is  engaged in activities that potentially pose a threat to this country as defined in the aforementioned section 2 0f the CSIS Act.  In other words, CSIS targets behaviours not people or communities.  And it does so very well and very judiciously.

Besides, who says that a journalist (or a professor for that matter) can’t be engaged in activities that pose a threat to our security?  Are these people somehow beyond reproach? Are there no “bad apples” in the bunch?  I would hope that CSIS would investigate anyone who does things that threaten us, irrespective of their profession, ethnicity, creed, colour or whatever.  Threats are threats after all and not limited to specific parts of our society.

Furthermore, do we really want our spies to unilaterally and unequivocally rule out an investigation on a particular place just because that place is “sensitive”?  If they had information that a terrorist cell was forming on a university campus does anyone really expect them to ignore it out of some ill-considered concerns that universities are hallowed halls of freedom of speech and thought?  The same goes for secondary schools.  Given what we know about the genesis of the Toronto 18 I for one hope that CSIS would do whatever it takes to nip these plots in the bud should another cell take shape in a high school.

I fear sometimes that the Senate standing committee on national security and defence can descend into petty politics and scoring partisan points.  We need committees of this kind to question the heads of our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies and to hold them responsible,  but not to resort to headline chasing.  Yes, ask hard questions, but no do not engage in ill-informed (or uniformed) innuendo.  The people of Canada deserve more.

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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