Spy vs. spy: Debating new anti-terror bill
Proposed additional powers for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service are overdue in this era where terrorist plots and other potential national security threats traverse the globe at the speed of the Internet, says a former highranking Canadian spy.
Ray Boisvert, onetime CSIS chief for counter-terrorism and later assistant director for intelligence, says giving CSIS intelligence agents powers to go on the offensive and actively disrupt threats to national security will modernize a national security structure that was devised for the Cold War.
CSIS was created in 1984, replacing the disgraced and disbanded RCMP Security Service after revelations of “dirty tricks” against left-wing radicals and Quebec separatists in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Acting on the recommendations of the McDonald Commission (officially called the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Certain Activities of the RCMP), the government mandated the new civilian organization with collecting and analyzing information and producing intelligence about potential national security threats to Canada.
Implicit in that mandate were several degrees of separation from police work. CSIS was not allowed to counter threats.
In 1985, one year after its birth, 90 per cent of its resources were dedicated to monitoring Soviet intelligence operations in Canada.
“You’d look at a newly arrived Soviet attaché or diplomat and you’d spend four years doing residency analysis: is he a real or known suspect or an intelligence officer? That was what the game was about.
“Any every once in a while, you’d tell Foreign Affairs, ‘This guy is not the second secretary of cultural affairs, he’s a KGB officer and you should consider punting him out of the country.’ That was about as much threat diminishment that occurred in CSIS in those early days.”
Then a landmark 1991 Supreme Court of Canada decision, known as Stinchcombe, hamstrung already chronically strained relations between CSIS and the RCMP on national security matters. The court ruling established that Crown prosecutors must disclose to the defence all evidence and information that could be possibly relevant to the case, regardless of whether it was going to be used at trial. The obligation also applied to police.
In the spy business, protecting human sources and tradecraft are paramount. With Stinchcombe, CSIS had to exercise much more caution in revealing potential threats to RCMP criminal investigators, lest its secrets be spilled in open court.
Fast forward to post-9/11 terrorism. The timeline to counter threats is no longer four years.
“It’s not a year, six months, sometimes it could even be weeks and sometimes it could be hours,” says Boisvert. “Suddenly, you get two people — and I’ve lived this one — who have decided to head off to a foreign country to become suicide bombers and they’ve already left their apartment. What do we do?
“The process of having these degrees of separation means, OK we call in the RCMP, but we can’t tell them much because of the Stinchcombe decision. We end up having this obscure conversation about two people. ‘I can give you their names, but I can’t tell you much more.’ ”
Should Bill C-51 become law, CSIS will go back to the future. It will gain some police-like muscle with a revised mandate that would include disrupting “threats to the security of Canada” through direct and presumably covert actions. Judicial warrants authorizing the activities only will be required if the Criminal Code or Charter are to be breached.
Says Boisvert: “You’ve got to be able to quickly move to get at people travelling, people moving money and people propagandizing, who are enticing other people and facilitating them to move offshore. That’s at the heart of the threat diminishment.”