With the Conservative government set as early as today to table expanded powers for Canada’s spies, the watchdog overseeing the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has identified flaws in how the agency operates with tools already at its disposal.
A report tabled Friday by the Security Intelligence Review Committee suggests CSIS is operating without sufficient controls or scrutiny by its overseers.
The oversight body, chaired by former Conservative MP Deborah Grey, said CSIS may be casting too wide a net during some of its wiretaps and Internet intercepts, while noting that CSIS regional surveillance teams “operate in total isolation … and communicate only sporadically” with one another and headquarters.
The report also said that CSIS had failed to put adequate controls or policies in place after allowing its employees – who are not authorized to carry guns in Canada – to arm themselves in dangerous countries. Employees and the agency itself have not been following proper protocols, and the minister responsible for public safety, Steven Blaney, has been kept in the dark about the changing nature and scope of the firearms program, SIRC said.
“SIRC believes that many of the issues raised in this review go to the heart of Ministerial accountability over CSIS,” the watchdog said.
In its reply, included in the report, CSIS said it had made some changes to address the report’s findings but said a recommendation to provide written justification to the minister was “still under consideration.” A spokesman for Mr. Blaney said the government “will implement those [recommendations] that will best keep Canadians safe” while protecting their rights and privacy.
The report arrives as the government prepares to table changes to the CSIS Act that it says will clarify and strengthen the agency’s ability to investigate threats to Canada abroad. The bill is expected to improve tracking of suspect Canadians through global intelligence networks and afford greater protections for CSIS sources.
“It’s not really about ‘tougher laws,’ it’s about more effective investigative techniques that keep up with the changing times,” said Ray Boisvert, former assistant director of intelligence for CSIS, in an e-mail.
The bill was to be tabled last Wednesday until gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau went on a shooting spree in downtown Ottawa, killing honour guard Nathan Cirillo in front of the National War Memorial and getting into Parliament’s Centre Block, where he was gunned down underneath the Peace Tower as MPs gathered for caucus meetings metres away. It was the week’s second slaying of a member of the military on Canadian soil, after Martin Couture-Rouleau struck and killed Patrice Vincent with a vehicle as the warrant officer walked in his Canadian Forces uniform in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. Mr. Couture-Rouleau, later killed by police, was on a list of 90 people monitored by the RCMP in national security investigations.
The incidents have prompted an emotional response from Canadians. The war memorial in Ottawa drew steady crowds of visitors over the weekend, its status as a shrine to an unknown soldier now poignantly expanded to include the name of a young man mourned around the world. Many wept and laid bouquets around the tomb, which was guarded by two sentries where Mr. Cirillo once stood. Ottawa Police Constable Nelson Rowan, standing near the memorial clutching a semi-automatic rifle, was a beneficiary of some of the outpouring. In the span of five minutes on a crisp Sunday afternoon, one woman thanked him, another pinned a poppy on his lapel, while a third, with a tear streaming down her cheek, told him: “You keep yourself safe.”
“I feel very moved and very sad for what’s happened,” said Emilia Druzenco, a nurse who emigrated from Romania in 1996, after laying a bouquet at the shrine Sunday. “Maybe we need some regulations and some rules to be changed, enforced, to protect ourselves. But to change our way of living? No, I don’t think so.”
Justice Minister Peter MacKay said Friday the government is exploring added security measures beyond the CSIS bill, including changing the threshold for preventative arrests and more closely tracking people who may pose a threat.
Wesley Wark, an expert on national security and intelligence issues who has advised the government, said before Ottawa takes any such measures, it should hold a public inquiry to understand “what the lessons of last week’s attacks really are … so we can see both what went right and what went wrong.” Mr. Wark said the government should consider following the United States and Britain in introducing a public threat level warning system. “I don’t think successive governments in Canada have done enough to be transparent” about the threats facing Canadians on home soil, he said.
Aki Peritz, a former counterterrorism analyst with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, cautioned it would be difficult for any legislation to improve the interception of so-called lone wolves. “Lone wolves by definition are off the radar of intelligence forces and the law enforcement community, so it’s very difficult to stop” them, he said. He likened such actions to not just looking for a needle in a haystack, but “looking for a needle in a needle stack. … They can’t stop literally everybody who converts to Islam, or who engages in petty theft, and so forth. It’s against Canadian values and ineffective. The bottom line is there are no very good answers.”