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Montreal La Presse is reporting that city police monitored the iPhone of one of its journalists for months in order to find out who he was speaking with.The Associated Press

Montreal's police chief is defending his force's decision to secretly monitor a journalist's smartphone for months in a far-reaching case of surveillance that has sparked condemnation across Canada and internationally.

Patrick Lagacé, a columnist for La Presse and one of Quebec's best-known journalists, said he was shaken after discovering that Montreal police had been effectively spying on him in an effort to root out the contacts of one of its own officers.

"I was furious," Mr. Lagacé said in an interview on Monday. "I didn't think that in this country, we could so easily spy on a journalist for such flimsy motives. I found it very insulting to my entire profession. I didn't think you could do this in Canada."

Montreal police obtained 24 warrants this year to enable them to monitor Mr. Lagacé's whereabouts using the GPS in his iPhone. They were also able to track incoming and outgoing calls and text messages.

Editorial: Montreal police monitoring of journalist is a grotesque attack on the free press

The disclosures, first made in La Presse, have caused a furor in both legal and political circles. Responding to the uproar, police chief Philippe Pichet called a news conference late Monday afternoon in which he justified the actions and said his force had acted legally to get the warrants.

They were granted by Josée De Carufel, a justice of the peace in Montreal who was nominated in 2012 after working as a criminal prosecutor since 2003.

"We followed the rules and the judge authorized the warrant," he said. He confirmed that Mr. Lagacé himself was in no way a suspect or the target of the investigation, which was aimed at a police officer.

"The City of Montreal Police Force recognizes freedom of the press," Chief Pichet said. "But on the other hand, there were criminal allegations against a police officer … and we have a job to do."

He did not rule out the possibility that other journalists have been the subject of similar warrants.

The case gained attention as far as Russia, where whistle-blower Edward Snowden tweeted about it. "Are you a journalist? The police spying on you specifically to ID your sources isn't a hypothetical. This is today," he said, referring to the Montreal case.

Legal experts raised questions about the warrants, in light of Supreme Court rulings saying police need to fulfill specific criteria before obtaining them, and targeting journalists should be a final recourse.

"It has to be a last resort," said Christian Leblanc, former president of the Canadian Media Lawyers Association. "I have rarely seen this kind of procedure against a journalist, and thank God they're not often delivered."

He called Mr. Lagacé an "innocent third party" in the case. "It will hinder journalists in their quest to get to stories based on confidential sources. This is a serious interference in the public's right to information."

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said he considered the matter "troubling" but stood by the police chief. Quebec Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux qualified it as "very worrisome" and said his department is investigating whether police followed proper procedures.

The genesis of the story came in December when police launched a probe into the alleged fabrication of evidence among police officers in the drugs and street-gang unit; it led to the arrest of five officers in July. According to La Presse, in the course of searching the cellphone of one of the officers, they discovered that he had been in contact with Mr. Lagacé.

Articles appeared in the media soon afterward; Mr. Lagacé was not the author of any of them, and some appeared in other media. Yet Mr. Lagacé was targeted by the surveillance operation after police decided to open a criminal investigation into the police officer and whether he was the source of the information.

Mr. Lagacé says he believes he was pinpointed because he has penned several articles and journalistic "scoops" over the years that irritated the police. "This is a witch-hunt to find out who's talking to journalists," he said. Some damaging articles prompted a response from the administration of Mayor Coderre, he added. "It ended up creating a climate of paranoia at city hall and at the police."

Journalists said the case was an egregious example of interference in the press.

"This is the kind of thing you see in Russia, or North Korea," said Eric Trottier, vice-president of information at La Presse, who termed it "extremely dangerous."

"It's pretty incredible that it can happen in Canada, one of the great democracies of the world."

Nick Taylor-Vaisey, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, said protecting sources is a crucial part of journalists' work.

"Whistle-blowers trust journalists to tell their stories and protect their identities. We report stories in the public interest, and the confidentiality of our sources is often vital in that work," he said. "It's inexcusable for a police force to forget that."

La Presse is demanding the police turn over the USB key with the information culled from Mr. Lagacé's smartphone.

The Cour du Québec defended the work of its justices of the peace. In a statement released late Monday, it said they rule on cases without interference or outside influence. "The high number of requests they treat means they have a specific expertise in this regard," they said, without referring specifically to Ms. De Carufel.