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How RCMP officers spied on reporters, with no authorization

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Bob Paulson speaks to media after a public safety committee meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 6, 2015. Paulson released the video Michael Zehaf-Bibeau made before carrying out his attacks. REUTERS/Blair Gable (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)

BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS

Two RCMP officers spied on two La Presse reporters in 2007, without authorization, in the hope of tracing an apparent leak in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Evidently, these officers had not absorbed – or had ignored – the strong decision of a superior court judge the previous year, in the Maher Arar saga. The judge had made very clear that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms means that police officers cannot raid a reporter's house without getting the consent of a judge for a search warrant.

As a result of that case, RCMP officers may not be absolutely forbidden from investigating journalists, but they have to get permission to do so, from high up in the force.

As it happens, in both these cases, the officers were trying to trace a supposed leak from someone in CSIS in connection with Adil Charkaoui, one of the men suspected of terrorism who were held in jail under the unusual security-certificate procedure.

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For about nine days, the RCMP officers followed Joel-Denis Bellavance and Gilles Toupin, two reporters for La Presse working in Ottawa. They had no idea they were being watched in "Project Standard." Altogether, it sounds like a rather futile investigation.

The officer whose authority should have been sought was Bob Paulson, the RCMP's acting assistant commissioner at the time, and now its Commissioner, who eventually apologized to Mr. Bellavance. An internal reprimand had been documented, without any other discipline.

But Mr. Paulson later did authorize some partial surveillance, seemingly with equally little result.

The unauthorized (and later authorized) investigation popped up in the course of a lawsuit by Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen born in Sudan, who for some years was stranded in his native country because of an unclear suspicion of terrorism. For a long time he lived in limbo on a couch in the Canadian embassy.

In November, Commissioner Paulson approved a note on these matters about balancing "appropriately on a case-by-case basis." That is not reassuring to journalists, or to the general public.

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