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The Mounties have created a permanent place for counterterrorism detectives to work shoulder-to-shoulder – and database to database – with federal border guards, immigration officials and spy-agency analysts.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Mounties have created a permanent place for counterterrorism detectives to work shoulder-to-shoulder – and database to database – with federal border guards, immigration officials and spy-agency analysts.

The RCMP's national-security joint-operations centre (NSJOC) in Ottawa is a "real-time and rapid information-sharing" crossroads where federal agents can efficiently swap files, according to recently released records. However, critics fear it will go places no watchdog can follow.

The counterterrorism centre was largely unknown until RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson made a brief reference to it in Parliament earlier this year. The Globe and Mail has acquired the centre's terms of reference under Access to Information laws.

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The centre brings federal agents of all stripes together in an RCMP facility in Ottawa where they can talk to each other and exchange information as part of the fight against terrorism. It formally came into existence in October, 2014, the same month two men inspired by the Islamic State killed two Canadian Forces soldiers.

The next spring, executives at the Communications Security Establishment, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Canada Border Services Agency and Citizenship and Immigration Canada signed the centre's terms of reference, under which they agree to embed at least one staff member with the RCMP at all times.

The federal agencies constantly collect data, but under different mandates than that of the Mounties. Federal agents typically shield their files from each other unless they have a compelling reason to share. In some cases, warrants are needed for information handovers.

Yet federal agents want to knock down institutional walls in times of crisis, and the RCMP-led centre seeks to keep the bureaucratic barriers to information-sharing low.

"The NSJOC's members are co-located at the RCMP's National Operations Centre in Ottawa to facilitate real-time and rapid information sharing … [where] members have access to the databases and information holdings of their respective agencies," the terms of reference say.

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The document says criminal charges are just one approach to fighting terrorism. Pooling knowledge among federal agents makes other interventions possible – such as revoking suspects' passports, adding people to no-fly lists, or even warning the family and friends of radicalized young people "of the risks associated with violent extremist activity."

Nothing in the terms of reference suggests the agencies got new powers to share information.

"NSJOC members are required to adhere to the respective operational policies and procedures of their agencies," the document says. However, the Conservative government's 2015 Bill C-51, which was created at the same time as the centre, allows federal departments to move information relevant to "activity that undermines the security of Canada" to federal-security agencies. The Privacy Commissioner of Canada has called this law highly invasive.

Federal watchdog agencies have complained for years that they cannot track what information agencies share in the name of national-security. Even as federal-security agencies increasingly swap files, none of their review bodies are legally empowered to see what is happening as it happens, or within more than one agency.

"A body like this makes the case for why we need more robust real-time oversight," says Carmen Cheung, a professor at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, who was shown a copy of the terms of reference. "It looks like they are all co-located in essentially one room, and that room has direct access to all the databases of all the respective agencies, which is amazing."

A decade ago, a judicial inquiry recommended Canada create a watchdog to track all security agencies at once, but the concept never got off the ground. The finding followed a Canadian counterterrorism investigation in which federal agents swapped information carelessly and several Canadians were wrongly jailed as presumed terrorists in Middle East prisons.

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Today, federal-security agencies are under renewed pressure to amass and share records. Recent disclosures indicate CSIS, the domestic spy agency, has been "ingesting bulk data sets " in hopes of predicting patterns of terrorism, and its foreign-focused counterpart, CSE, is mapping out "contact chains" of global communications to discern where threats lie.

It's not clear how police would use such deductions. The records about the RCMP-led centre say that sharing information, early and often, can minimize the risk that federal police and spies trip over each other, and head off future problems.

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