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Rattled by Ottawa shooting, Canada to broaden powers of spy agency

A new bill would give Canada's national intelligence agency new powers to conduct covert operations and surveillance of foreign nationals anywhere in the world. Last week's fatal shooting on Parliament Hill stalled the bill's introduction. 

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    Members of the media stand in the Rotunda as they wait for caucus meetings to break Wednesday in Ottawa, one week after a shooter entered Parliament Hill.
    Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/AP
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Just a week after a gunman killed a soldier and shot several other people on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the Canadian government has unveiled new legislation that would beef up domestic and foreign espionage.

Analysts say the legislation is a "game changer" for Canada, turning the longtime junior partner in a secretive English-speaking intelligence bloc into a major contributor. That, in turn, is raising concerns over political and judicial oversight of the country's hitherto constrained spying apparatus.

The proposed Protection of Canadians From Terrorism Act would empower the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to do physical surveillance, covert operations, and to intercept communications of foreign nationals, as well as Canadians, anywhere in the world.

The bill's introduction on Monday was ironically preempted by last week's attack, which the legislation predates. But the fatal shooting by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who was himself shot dead by police, brings a new impetus to debate over the bill.

CSIS’ mandate is to act as a domestic intelligence service, surveying domestic threats and running counter-intelligence. While it has long tried to run operations abroad, Canadian courts have repeatedly stood in its way, including attempts to cooperate with the NSA to intercept communications in other countries.

Under this new legislation, CSIS would be unique amongst the so-called Five Eyes – the intelligence partnership of Canada, the US, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia – by being the only agency in the group to be empowered with domestic and foreign spying powers. In the US, a coalition of Homeland Security and the FBI manage domestic security and anti-terrorism programs, while the CIA manages foreign intelligence. The other partners have similarly bifurcated operations.

The legislation also enables CSIS to use confidential informants, a right previously reserved for Canadian law enforcement. Critics warn that these major changes, without new corresponding oversight, open new doors for CSIS with very little understanding of where they lead.

Bulk data collection

The empowerment of CSIS also has knock-on effects for Canada's answer to the NSA, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), which collects bulk data. 

The CSEC, with which the CSIS works closely, is expressly forbidden from spying on Canadians anywhere in the world, unless it does so at the behest of another domestic organization with lawful authority. With CSIS now at liberty to obtain secret warrants in closed court to investigate perceived threats to the country, their partnership will likely grow ever closer.

Minister of Public Safety Stephen Blaney told reporters that the objective of the new legislation is to facilitate intelligence sharing and capture between the Five Eyes. And Justice Minister Peter MacKay said that domestic and international information-sharing was central to the changes the bill would enact.

When asked this week whether going down the road of mass spying would even be legal, Mr. MacKay said simply “it has to be.” He argued that the bill was a “methodical, targeted” effort to respond to recent terror attacks in Canada, as well as a long-held belief that CSIS’ net should be widened.

MacKay said that criticisms – “constructive or otherwise” – from the court and CSIS’ oversight committee would inform their decisions going forward.

Effective oversight?

Marion Bialek, a former director general at CSIS who retired in 2002, calls the act a "game changer," and warns that the agency will need greater oversight as a result.

“Bottom line, for me: If you’re looking for increased powers, you have to prove that you have oversight and that the oversight is effective,” he says.

That task currently falls to the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC). Its board of five political appointees submits classified reviews to the Minister of Public Safety, as well as publicly available annual reviews.

But Mr. Bialek says the body is limited, slow, and generally ineffective. And critics warn that SIRC is primarily a review body, not an independent watchdog, and releases only the vaguest of details of CSIS spying.

Legislation introduced by the opposition Liberal Party would create a committee staffed by Members of Parliament to oversee CSIS’ and CSEC’s operations, though it appears to have no support from the governing Conservatives.

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