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CSIS spies must follow same rules abroad, watchdog says

A man Afghan authorities suspect of insurgency-related activities is interrogated during a joint Canadian-Afghan army patrol in the Panjwaii District of Kandahar province on Thursday, July 2, 2009.

COLIN PERKEL/Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

The watchdog body for Canada's intelligence service has issued its spies a reminder: Rules governing their conduct do not relax once they leave the country.

A partly censored review of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service's role in interrogating Afghan prisoners overseas was released Thursday. While it cleared CSIS of complicity in any detainee abuse, the report did criticize the country's spymasters for lax record keeping and for sending CSIS officers overseas without sufficient guidance.

"The standards don't change because of the arena and theatre that you're working in," Arthur Porter, chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, said in an interview with The Globe. "We are in a learning curve and we need to point out where things could get tightened up."

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The Security Intelligence Review Committee report concludes the spy service must "ensure that the management of its operations abroad mirrors, to the extent practicable, the standard of accountability and professionalism that is set and maintained domestically."

Formed in 1984 as a domestic spy service, CSIS has grown increasingly inclined to venture overseas to gather intelligence. Yet Parliament has never given it much direction on its overseas intelligence-gathering – what to do and what not to do.

Dr. Porter pointed out in the interview that Canada's intelligence operations had been going on in Afghanistan since 2002, but for CSIS "it wasn't until 2007 and 2008 that the directives matched the field operations."

One major policy question was how CSIS operatives were to work with agencies who busied themselves with capturing and interrogating Taliban prisoners – including Canadian Special Forces teams and Afghanistan's notorious National Directorate of Security. Recurring accounts of brutal NDS practices have led NATO countries in Afghanistan to suspend prisoner transfers.

During the review, CSIS officials stressed their role in prison interviews was "very limited."

"We're effectively sitting in on CANSOF [Canadian Special Operations]interviews and providing advice if/when warranted," one said.

The SIRC report finds CSIS operatives never witnessed any prison abuse or torture. Though CSIS tended to espouse that such brutality was unconfirmed, it still took a very "cautious" approach to any information emanating from Afghan prisons – giving much of it "low weight," the report says.

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The problems SIRC did identify were technical. For example, CSIS was so lax in logging prison interviews that it couldn't say how many it sat in on. "Should CSIS continue to expand its activities abroad .... it will need to improve its record management practices," the report says.

There was also a lack of guidance from CSIS headquarters as to how field operatives were to weigh and circulate intelligence that might be regarded as tainted.

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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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