Canada′s spy agency finds a friend in Prime Minister Harper | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 09.02.2015
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Canada's spy agency finds a friend in Prime Minister Harper

Canada has proposed new legal tools for its spy agency in a recently tabled anti-terrorism bill. However, critics say the bill lacks the proper oversight to prevent potential abuse. Philip Fine reports from Montreal.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is currently in North America for pre-G7 meetings with both US President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (photo, above). On the list of topics planned for her discussion with Harper on Monday, according to the prime minister's website, is the global effort to fight terror.

As in many other countries, Canada's counter-intelligence file has grown in importance since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US. The country went from having no anti-terrorism legislation to enacting sweeping and controversial laws that include preventative arrest measures. In step with those new powers have come increased expenditures for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), which have a combined annual budget of $1 billion Canadian (710 million euros).

While the current government has brought in several new anti-terror laws during its nine years in power, it recently ramped up its focus on Islamic extremism after two homegrown, lone-wolf terror events this past October. The first took place outside a strip mall in a military town in the province of Quebec, as a car driven by a radicalized Canadian-born man struck and killed a uniformed Canadian soldier.

Kanada Ottawa Anschlag Parlament Polizei Spezialeinheit 22.10.2014

Canada was on high alert after two attacks in October

The second attack, just days later, saw a gunman shoot and kill another soldier, this one on ceremonial sentry duty in the nation's capital, Ottawa. The gunman, whose affiliations with jihadists remain uncertain, went on to storm the nearby Parliament buildings before being stopped by security personnel. In both incidents, authorities shot and killed the perpetrators.

The attacks, along with the numerous killings abroad by "Islamic State" militants, al-Shabab and Boko Haram, have lent an urgency to the government's rhetoric. The rise in polling numbers for the ruling Conservative Party after its response to the recent attacks at home may have also helped the party lay out its terror-fighting narrative for this year's upcoming election.

New powers for CSIS

"A great evil has been descending upon our world, an evil that has been growing more and more powerful: violent jihadism," Harper said in a stump-like speech on January 30, when he first introduced the anti-terror bill. "[It] is one of the most dangerous enemies our world has ever faced."

The bill, expected to be passed by the majority government this spring, would give new powers to CSIS to disrupt potential threats. It introduces several provisions on charges and detainment:

  • Secret investigative hearings for knowledge of a terrorist activity
  • Detainment without charges for up to three days for an individual suspected of being involved in terrorism
  • Charges for leaving the country if authorities believe an individual intends to participate in a terrorist activity
  • The blocking of financial transactions linked to suspected terrorist activity
  • Wiretapping without the need for it as a last resort
  • Charges for advocating or encouraging someone to commit terrorism
  • Websites that promote terrorist propaganda can be taken down

The increased provisions have led the two main opposition leaders, Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party and Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party, to focus on the bill's lack of oversight measures.

"I believe that when a government asks its citizens to give up even a small portion of their liberty it is that government's highest responsibility to guarantee that its new powers will not be abused,'' said Trudeau. Like Mulcair, he is calling for a system where parliamentarians can access classified materials in order to properly scrutinize the agencies.

The government has defended the bill, saying it holds authorities to account while also helping them to better fulfill their roles. "The oversight is strong. What we need to do is make sure our police and security agencies have the tools they need," said Harper.

'No capacity to look at big picture'

Nonetheless, the optics are glaring. CSIS currently has 6,200 employees, while the body that oversees it, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), has five part-time member positions, two of which stood vacant until last week when one was reinstated.

Wesley Wark, co-director of a research team at the University of Ottawa studying the impact of national security and counter-terrorism policies on Canadians since 9/11, agrees that the oversight is insufficient and that SIRC lacks the capacity to see beyond the one intelligence agency.

"They're very siloed, very fragmented," he told DW. "We have absolutely no capacity to look at that big picture." He has called for a parliamentary review, saying it will be better to scrutinize and oversee an integrated security and intelligence community. He points out that the four other members of the Five Eyes intelligence gathering network, which includes the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, all give their politicians the ability to scrutinize spy activity.

Staatsbesuch Stephen Harper in Berlin

Merkel and Harper (right, in Berlin last March) will discuss the global effort to fight terror

Wark, a former member of Canada's Advisory Council on National Security, finds the bill's proposed disruption powers worrying. "It's a departure of a longstanding appreciation of what CSIS was, that it was an intelligence collector and adviser to the government and that it wasn't involved in active measures," he said.

Wark also finds that the advocacy and terrorism propaganda offenses in the bill miss the target that the worldwide intelligence community is trying to zero in on. He said Canada needs to look at finding lawful mandates to go after more operational signals.

"That's the challenging frontier of the law: to try and get at those real terrorist communications," he said. Added to that, he said, is the posting of material that could aid terrorists: "Plotting explosives, manuals on how to build an IED [improvised explosive device], how to build a chemical weapon, how to illicitly acquire weapons or illicitly fundraise, how to put together terror cells. It's that stuff, not terrorism propaganda or advocacy, that really needs to be gone after, and it's not reflected in these legislative changes."