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Documents reveal CSIS wary of Bill C-51 reforms

CSIS director Michel Coulombe is shown Monday March 9, 2015 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in Ottawa promising to rein in Canada's spies. But the bosses at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service want the Liberals to know that "robust" rules already govern their expanding operations – including their controversial, and newly legalized, disruption campaigns.

Transition materials that CSIS provided to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale highlight some of the challenges from the Bill C-51 controversy last year, when Canadian spying became a political issue. The documents, which were released to The Globe and Mail, show polite CSIS pushback against some of the Liberals' campaign pledges.

During the election, the governing Conservatives vowed to empower CSIS to fight terrorism, and cited Bill C-51, a new law that vastly increased the agency's freedom to operate and share information, as proof that they could do it.

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The NDP vowed to repeal the law, and the Liberals promised a middle course. On Nov. 4, Mr. Trudeau told Mr. Goodale in a mandate letter he should "work to repeal … the problematic elements of C-51 and introduce new legislation that strengthens accountability."

A week later, CSIS director Michel Coulombe sent a letter of introduction, and arranged a briefing, telling Mr. Goodale his spy service operates on tight strictures, not arbitrary whims.

"Recent legislation, including an expansion of the Service's mandate, has of course led to many changes of our policies," Mr. Coulombe wrote. "Most recently, a robust new framework was established to govern the conduct of threat-reduction activities."

The letter and related briefing materials were released under the Access to Information Act. On Monday, Mr. Coulombe is to testify before a Parliamentary commitee.

"Threat reduction" refers to the most controversial clauses of C-51, which give CSIS disruptive powers to "take measures, within or outside Canada, to reduce the threat" of any forces felt to be dangerous to national security. The law says CSIS intelligence officers cannot harm, kill or sexually assault anyone, but use of the power is otherwise open-ended.

The transition materials show CSIS officials view threat reduction as a large part of their jobs now. They assured Mr. Goodale they do not take their new responsibilities lightly. "Every effort has been made to ensure the responsible exercise … each time the Service exercises its authority."

CSIS officials said the service lives up to its legal obligations to consult Federal Court judges, or the public-safety minister and his written directives guiding the use of disruptive powers. Internal policies, they added, require further consultation with Mounties, diplomats and the Communications Security Establishment.

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"Though CSIS's authority to investigate and respond is rooted in its own legislation, its actions are not taken in isolation and demand close collaboration with the national-security community," the documents say. (They do not make clear if CSIS is apprising the federal partners of planned disruptions, or enlisting their help.)

The CSIS Act passed in 1984 reflected a relatively passive federal intelligence-collection agency. Agents had no powers to arrest anyone, or carry guns. Nothing explicitly enabled CSIS officers to interpose themselves in suspects' lives beyond tapping phones or conducting interviews.

But that began to change, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. CSIS operatives started going to places such as Afghanistan and carrying guns. Its leaders testified they started working more closely with police, and doing things that could help prevent terrorism. Some suspects began publicly complaining about CSIS officers aggressively following them or showing up to conduct interviews at workplaces.

C-51 allows CSIS officers to do all this and more. Mr. Coulombe last year told Parliament the bill could facilitate hacking operations – such as meddling with suspects' smartphones, money movements or travel. The law does not contemplate CSIS ever disclosing such operations to suspects.

The Liberals have never spelled out how they plan to overhaul the C-51 powers. Scott Bardsley, a staffer for Mr. Goodale, said the minister is consulting with security experts for national-security reforms.

The federal government has also promised to create a Parliamentary committee where select MPs would be allowed insights into classified CSIS operations. Most Canadian lawmakers currently know nothing about the specifics of CSIS operations.

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Mr. Coulombe says he is aware of a growing political appetite to shine some light on CSIS.

"The Service recognizes the current environment of heightened public interest in national security," he said in his November letter to Mr. Goodale. He added that as "trust underpins the Service's ability to be effective, the opportunity to contribute to this discussion is most welcome."

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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