An investigation at Canada’s secretive eavesdropping agency has uncovered misuse of public assets and “serious breaches” of the spy outfit’s values and ethics code.
The findings, prompted by confidential information from a whistleblower, led Communications Security Establishment Canada to revise policy, improve training and boost oversight.
However, CSEC will say little more about the episode – leading opposition MPs to accuse the spy agency of needless secrecy as it comes under intense scrutiny due to widely publicized leaks by former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
Ottawa-based CSEC monitors foreign computer, satellite, radio and telephone traffic of people, countries, organizations and terrorist cells for information of intelligence interest to the federal government.
It is a key player in the Five Eyes intelligence network that includes partner agencies from the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
The Canadian agency says its findings of asset misuse and ethics breaches are not related to national security information, the privacy of Canadians or the continuing construction of CSEC’s elaborate new Ottawa headquarters.
However, the investigation led to recommendations concerning purchasing practices, asset management, and financial controls and accountability. It resulted in changes including “more rigorous training of staff and managers” and “increased monitoring of financial authorities,” CSEC says.
In addition, the agency took “various measures” with regard to the employees in question.
CSEC spokesman Ryan Foreman said that for privacy reasons he could not release any information about “specific employees involved in this disclosure of wrongdoing.”
Foreman also refused to discuss the number and type of employees implicated, whether anyone was disciplined or fired, what kind of public assets were involved or their value.
Nor would he say when the matter came to CSEC’s attention, or when were the corrective steps were taken.
“They basically tell you nothing,” said Liberal public safety critic Wayne Easter.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris said the response “shows an unwillingness to be up-front with the public.”
“It just seems to me to be a public-relations response which doesn’t do much to inspire trust and confidence, frankly,” Harris said in an interview.
“If they’re hoping to inspire public trust in their agency, it would be in their interest to provide a little bit more disclosure here so that we’d have some sense of what was going on.”
The federal whistleblowing law, the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, allows employees a confidential means of informing superiors about serious wrongdoing in the workplace.
If a resulting investigation confirms improper acts, the senior official of an agency or department, such as CSEC chief John Forster, can suspend, demote or fire an employee. Other legal penalties may also apply.
In addition, the senior official must “provide public access” to information about the wrongdoing and any corrective action taken, the government says.
CSEC’s values and ethics code – released to The Canadian Press after repeated requests – spells out detailed procedures for reporting suspected malfeasance.
“In this case, allegations of employee wrongdoing were reported, investigated and addressed through these established procedures,” Foreman said.
In addition, he noted, CSEC employees may report allegations of employee wrongdoing to Jean-Pierre Plouffe, the independent watchdog who keeps an eye on the agency.
Easter, who advocates creation of a full-fledged national security committee of parliamentarians, said the finding of wrongdoing at CSEC – and the lack of public information about it – underscores the need for such a review body.
“We do not have the checks and balances in place in this country that other countries do with their oversight agencies.”
Classified material leaked by Snowden showed that the U.S. National Security Agency, CSEC’s American counterpart, had quietly obtained access to a broad sweep of e-mails, chat logs and other information from major Internet companies, as well as data about a huge volume of telephone calls.
The revelations have sparked widespread concern among privacy and civil liberties advocates.
Documents Snowden handed to journalists also indicated that Canada had helped the United States and Britain spy on participants at the London G20 summit in 2009. Other material suggested CSEC once monitored Brazil’s department of mines and energy.