When a Canadian spymaster was asked three years ago whether his agency had kept any tapes of its talks with teenage prisoner Omar Khadr in Guantanamo Bay, his reply was that nothing could be said.
The alleged existence of any such tapes was classified.
"To answer that question would disclose national security privileged information," said Jack Hooper, a CSIS deputy director compelled to testify by lawyers acting for Mr. Khadr, the Canadian citizen being detained in the U.S. prison camp in Cuba.
"Mr. Khadr has provided us with a great deal of specific information concerning Canadian-based operatives associated with al-Qaeda, some of whom are still at large," Mr. Hooper said. But he said it was illegal to even speak to whether records of the conversations were retained. "Disclosure of that information would reveal service operational methodologies and tactics."
It was illegal - in 2005. But this week, CSIS, which has always operated in the shadows, will find itself in an uncomfortable spotlight. After a series of stunning legal decisions, footage of the CSIS interrogation of Mr. Khadr is about to be revealed.
Four DVDs - originally marked "Secret/No Foreign" by U.S. agencies that created them - show the Canadian Security Intelligence Service at work, something that has never happened before. This is being done over the objections of CSIS, which is far better known for destroying its own tapes than showing them, and U.S. agencies who will likely be irritated that Canadians courts have ordered up the DVDs that will provide a rare glimpse inside the secret prison camp operating on leased land in Cuba.
A CSIS agent, who travelled to Guantanamo Bay in February, 2003, will be shown grilling Mr. Khadr about six months after his capture, for seven hours over three days. His face obscured to preserve his secret identity, the agent will be seen asking Mr. Khadr questions about the al-Qaeda figures he met while he was raised in Afghanistan by his fundamentalist parents, before being captured as a 15-year-old alleged "enemy combatant."
The CSIS operative will also be seen asking the teenager hard questions about his relationship with Islam. More than once, Mr. Khadr will be shown breaking down, crying, denying he knows anything about al-Qaeda.
The CSIS footage promises to be wrenching and remarkable, given the service was created a quarter-century ago to protect Canada while - and this is the cardinal rule - keeping its sources and methods secret.
Lately, clandestine activities provided for in 1984's CSIS Act have been running into a competing and concurrent law. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms bestows some of the world's highest civil-liberties protections to Canadian citizens, meaning that just as CSIS is getting more ambitious about chasing alleged terrorists at home and abroad, it is finding it is getting a lot harder to keep national security secrets.
"This has got to be the decade that the spies came in from the cold," Jim Judd, CSIS's director said in a speech in April. "Whether voluntarily, or kicking and screaming."
He spoke of a world where the "judicialization" of intelligence practices and aggressive reporting threatens the very idea of state secrecy.
Since Omar Khadr was detained in Guantanamo Bay on allegations he killed an American soldier, the now-21-year-old has been visited several times by agents from CSIS and Foreign Affairs Canada, after they negotiated access to Guantanamo Bay through the Pentagon.
Then, in 2005, a Federal Court judge examined Mr. Khadr's case and banned CSIS from future visits, ruling the "conditions at Guantanamo Bay do not meet Charter standards." In May of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada went further: Canadian agencies were ordered to hand over the secret fruits of their past interviews to Mr. Khadr's defence team.
Exactly what would be produced for public consumption and what would be kept secret was ambiguous until the Federal Court of Canada settled matters last month. After hearing motions from The Globe and Mail and CTV and other media organizations, Mr. Justice Richard Mosley said certain documents and the DVDs could be released to the Khadr legal team, who were free to circulate materials as they saw fit.
The documents made headlines after being e-mailed to media organizations last week. This week, Mr. Khadr's defence plans to circulate the videos, with the hope of shaming Canadian officials into lobbying for his repatriation.
Federal government lawyers had argued that the disclosures of U.S. information could cause rifts with American intelligence. Judge Mosley did not dispute this. "It may cause some harm to Canada-U.S. relations," he ruled, but added he expects the damage will be "minimal."
"In any event," he said, "I am satisfied that the public interest in disclosure of this information outweighs the public interest in non-disclosure."