Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

CSIS documents reveal how agency designates terrorism targets

A sign for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service building is shown in Ottawa, Tuesday, May 14, 2013.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When Canada's spies designate someone as a "target" of a terrorism probe, they input that information with one of four labels – "terrorist," "extremist," "supporter" and "sympathizer."

From there, the spy service determines whether the target is a Level One or Level Two threat. Only the latter can be put under the surveillance of bugging devices or paid infiltrators.

Newly released documents provide details on the targeting methodology now being used by Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the secretive agency that's about to be given new enforcement powers through legislation.

Story continues below advertisement

(How are CSIS's powers changing? Read The Globe's easy explanation)

The recently added ability to deem "sympathizers" as national-security threats means CSIS may already be casting a wider net to head off the threat posed by jihadis. Yet observers, including one retired spy-service executive, point out that fundamental changes are occurring at a time when Parliament has come under criticism for lax scrutiny of spying.

"Where's the ongoing accountability, and review, that the system contemplates, and depends upon frankly?" said Geoffrey O'Brian, a retired former CSIS chief of counterintelligence.

The 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act aims to bolster the spy service's ability to "take measures to reduce a threat to the security of Canada." This expansive legal power is arriving even as some observers suggest the agency's freedom to operate has already been expanding through subtle bureaucratic shifts.

Mr. O'Brian says CSIS targeting is now less centralized than it was a decade ago, when the agency's chief personally vetted most major targeting decisions. Documents now suggest the next rung of CSIS executives oversees such decisions.

The Globe and Mail recently obtained two 2013 CSIS documents stamped "secret" – internal reports on whether the spy service is following the rules of its warrant and targeting programs.

The CSIS Internal Audit Branch reports, released under Access to Information laws, looked at two years of records. Auditors determined the spying powers were being exercised lawfully. However, some criticisms and the specific numbers related to CSIS "targets" were redacted.

Story continues below advertisement

The stakes of spying can be high. To activate their most intrusive powers, CSIS intelligence officers present warrant applications to federal court judges. "Potential misuse of warrant powers could result in serious legal, operational, ethical and/or reputation outcomes," says one of the audits. Any oversteps could expose CSIS to "unlawful actions, and, in certain situations, criminal offences."

CSIS sometimes makes mistakes in its warrant applications. In 1987, the then-head of CSIS resigned over one such case. A more recent one involving CSIS breaching its "duty of candour" to a judge is heading to the Supreme Court.

Last month, the Conservatives introduced the new anti-terrorism law to confer a range of new warrant powers upon CSIS – including the ability to "disrupt" their targets with judicial approval. While the extent of such powers remains largely unexplained, the Liberals have said they will not vote against it.

"Targeting" is the first formal step CSIS takes against suspected terrorist threats. "Persons who are subject to a targeting decision … are designated and described by using one of the service designations [Terrorist, Extremist, Supporter or Sympathizer]," one audit says.

Such terms were first disclosed in 2012, when a media report described how CSIS had written ministerial memos about the new lexicon. The hope was that precise terms could inoculate the spy service against the international miscommunications that had led to several Canadian Arabs being wrongly detained overseas.

Mr. O'Brian, who retired in 2011, said that in his day, the CSIS targeting lexicon was "leadership," "member" and "supporter." Pressed as to what he would've done if a subordinate asked to keep tabs on a "sympathizer," Mr. O'Brian said he would have said: "Sorry – not good enough. What's he done?"

Story continues below advertisement

CSIS spokeswoman Tahera Mufti replied with the following statement on Wednesday:

CSIS developed a lexicon of common terms and definitions to guide and ensure accuracy in its descriptions of individuals in information exchanges with domestic and foreign partners.  This effort was informed in part by observations by Commissions of Inquiry, and the use of the lexicon's terminology can in no way be equated to "casting a wider net".  It also does not alter the threshold of the Service requiring reasonable grounds to suspect an individual's activities pose a threat to national security before launching an investigation – a threshold which the Service has dutifully respected for 30 years.  As indicated in the ATIP related documents, the internal audit found that the Service's targeting activities were carried out in compliance with the CSIS Act, Ministerial Directives and Service targeting policy.

Report an error Licensing Options
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

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.