In a better world, there would be no awkwardly bureaucratic phrases such as "non-threat-related information."
As things are, however, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, in its annual report published last week, has done admirable work in pointing out the need to clarify the uncertain boundaries between the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment Canada – and to improve their co-operation.
The limits of SIRC's review also suggest that Canadians spies need more eyes on them, in the form of more intensive and effective oversight.
Common sense would suggest that security and intelligence agencies should only be dealing with actual or probable threats. But the CSIS Act says that the agency may, "in relation to the conduct of the international affairs of Canada," collect "information or intelligence relating to the capabilities, intentions or activities of any foreign state." That is too broad.
Another section – reflecting much more what one would expect – deals with "security intelligence," which is defined as dealing with "threats to the security of Canada."
The SIRC observes that there is a continuing debate inside CSIS about whether the gathering of information about foreign countries' economic activities in Canada is a distraction from the agency's primary work of security intelligence.
And the committee itself thinks that quite a few of the foreign-influenced activities investigated by CSIS are public and overt rather than clandestine. For that matter, the word "clandestine" itself is by no means self-explanatory. Confidential business research may legitimately be kept private, without any element of deception or fraud.
The members of the SIRC deserve praise for their clear-headedness. But the conundrums around both CSIS and CSEC call for more frequent oversight than an annual review. Such oversight should be parliamentary; both the British and the Americans have models for ensuring that legislators know what the spies are up to.
Intelligence-gathering is supposed to protect Canadians, but left unchecked, it can also threaten our rights. And, as things now stand, more democratic checks are needed on Canada's spies.