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In their murky battle against al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, Canadian agents meet a couple of times a month to identify their targets. A handful of top CSIS officials in Ottawa sit down with a colleague from the Justice Department to add to their list two or three new people they are going to spy on.

Arcane acronyms and allegations of adverse agents fill the agenda, as the group reviews preliminary intelligence on potential national-security threats. Algerian GIA? Tamil LTTE? Sympathizer or operative? Where has the target travelled and who is he meeting? Does CSIS get the minister to sign off on a phone-tapping warrant? Or, is it better to just discreetly follow the target in question?

As part of a general overview of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the ongoing Arar commission explored the inner workings of the little-known target approval review committee yesterday.

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TARC is the place in CSIS where a peculiar class of civil servants -- half spy and half bureaucrat -- push paper, in hopes of preventing the carnage that would result from any attack on, say, Toronto's Union Station or any other potential sitting duck of a location.

The "targets" in question range from people the service may already know well to mysterious "FNULNUs" -- first name unknown, last name unknown -- and up to half-an-hour is spent discussing each targeting request.

"It's a rare instance that we don't approve," Jack Hooper, a CSIS counterterrorism expert, told the commission yesterday.

Mr. Hooper, the assistant director of operations, estimated no more than 10 per cent of the targeting requests are rejected. "It goes through a lot of hoops before it gets to committee," he said, adding he has seen as many as 17 signatures of lower-ranking officials on any given request.

A square-jawed former Mountie and CSIS Day Oner with a no-nonsense demeanour, Mr. Hooper told the commission that he believes al-Qaeda fully intends to make good on its threats to attack Canada.

"Al-Qaeda is an organization that keeps its promises, it does not make idle threats," he said.

CSIS has said in the past that it keeps tabs on as many as 350 individuals at any given time, though the number is always fluctuating. Sometimes hunches don't bear out. Sometimes surveillance is kept up for long periods. Sometimes people turn up captured or dead in other countries.

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But in Canada, most of it always stays in the shadows. While several immigrant targets of CSIS have been deemed deportable because they are threats to national security, criminal terrorism prosecutions flowing from intelligence information remain rare.

CSIS officials underlined this week that intelligence gathering is not law-enforcement, though they do pass on threat information and criminal activity when they deem it necessary.

The information about TARC surfaced at the Maher Arar inquiry this week, though CSIS is not commenting on what role it may have played in the investigation of any particular target.

Mr. Arar accused Canadian agencies of complicity in his deportation from the United States to Syria in 2002, as he was accused of being an al-Qaeda agent. Transcripts of the proceedings are available at .

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