Conservative plan for new CSIS powers fails to impress critics

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

Opposition parties are withholding judgement but voicing some concerns about the Harper government's plan to fight homegrown terrorism  a plan that was partially unveiled Thursday by Public Safety Minister Stephen Blaney. 

At a press conference in Alberta, Blaney announced that CSIS, Canada's spy agency, would be receiving additional powers, saying "we cannot be complacent in the face of terrorism."

"In particular, we are firmly committed to take strong action to address the threat of individuals who become radicalized to violence and the growing problem of extremist travelers.

"We want to introduce legislative changes to update the CSIS Act to allow our security and intelligence service to better operate and investigate threats from abroad  threats to our national security. There is no doubt that the threats to our security have changed dramatically since the passage of the CSIS Act in 1984, 30 years ago."

According to the Ottawa Citizen, the changes will allow CSIS to cooperate more closely with the Five Eyes spy network, an alliance which includes Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.  

It could also give CSIS informants blanket protection from testifying in courts  a privilege only currently afforded to police informants in criminal cases. 

[ Related: Federal bill to expand anti-terror powers through tracking, source shield

NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison, says he's not convinced the government is doing enough. 

"This is a government that has cut the budget at CSIS and cut the budget of [the Canada Border Services Agency].

"It's a major concern...if we're trying to combat possible terrorist activities, and we've cut 100 intelligence officers at CBSA who would be the front line defence against things like this happening.

"We'll have a look at the legislation but we've got to make sure we're doing everything we can. And I doubt that [we are.]"

Liberal public safety critic Wayne Easter says that the more he hears from Blaney, the less confident he is in the public safety minister's ability to do his job. 

"I don't know why he held a press conference in Banff with the hype around it with so little in it," Easter told Yahoo in a telephone interview from Prince Edward Island.

"He was before the [public safety] committee just last Wednesday, he could have mentioned some of this then."

Easter also has some concerns over Canada's cooperation with the Five Eyes. 

"If it's exchanging information...in order to protect ourselves and our allies against terrorist elements, then that's fine. But if it's giving authority to some foreign spy agency to do things that's not allowed domestically by our own spy agency, then I might have some problems with that," he said. 

"And the other thing...we're the only member of the Five Eyes that doesn't have a parliamentary oversight of our various security agencies. That would give at least Canadians some confidence that these folks are being monitored basically on a daily basis. The hard questions are asked. Why are you asking for this authority? What do you need it for? Who are you monitoring?"

CSIS's activities have come under increasing scrutiny over the past couple of years.

Civil liberty groups have derided the spy agency for its secrecy and, last fall, a federal judge reprimanded CSIS for not being forthcoming about its surveillance alliances. In a statement obtained by the Globe and MailJustice Richard Mosley said that the use of ‘the assets of the Five Eyes community’ is not authorized under any warrant the court issues.

CSIS Assistant Director of Operations Andy Ellis, however, argues that rulings like that have somewhat handcuffed the agency. 

"[We had to] reconsider how we undertook some of our operations to make sure that they were in keeping of what the courts had expected of us," he said, according to the Canadian Press. 

"Unfortunately, while we went about doing this, we held in abeyance the coverage of Canadians and other targets working abroad...[who were] representing a terrorist threat to Canada and to our allies."

At the public safety committee meeting last week, CSIS director Michel Coulombe said they were monitoring 80 suspected Canadian terrorists that had returned home from conflicts around the world. 

The government's amendments to the CSIS Act are expected to be introduced in the House of Commons next week. 

(Photo via The Canadian Press)

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