Poor communication between CSIS and RCMP stalling investigations, says watchdog

·4 min read
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service tries to safeguard its operational information — including its tactics and methods, and where its spies are located. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service tries to safeguard its operational information — including its tactics and methods, and where its spies are located. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)

Flaws in the way Canada's spy agency and the national police force share information are stalling investigations — including one involving Canada-based extremists — says a new report from the country's intelligence watchdog.

The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), which was set up to monitor the activities of Canada's national security and intelligence sector, recently reviewed how the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service collaborated on an ongoing investigation involving domestic extremism.

The report was sent to the Public Safety minister earlier this year. Most details about the 2019 investigation are blacked-out in the NSIRA report — even its general location.

For example, one line in the report simply says that in 2015, CSIS "noted an increase in threat-related activity by [redacted.]"

What the report does make clear is that the reluctance of CSIS and the RCMP to talk led to delays in serious cases, making them even harder to investigate.

"These instances illustrate a mutual reluctance to pursue the formal disclosure of information from CSIS, even in cases where the alleged threats were serious or imminent and even though the alternative investigative path was slower and involved different challenges," wrote NSIRA.

"On the whole, NSIRA found that CSIS and the RCMP have made little progress in addressing the threat under investigation."

The theme running through the report is the struggle to maintain and support "intelligence to evidence" — the gap between what intelligence agencies have and police forces need for prosecutions.

The report says CSIS is under pressure to safeguard operational information — its tactics, methods, where its spies are located — while police and prosecutors are expected to both secure prosecutions and protect a defendant's right to a fair trial.

"Despite frequent verbal exchanges between CSIS and RCMP headquarters, CSIS's formal disclosures of information have been very limited and not always useful," says the NSIRA report.

"Frontline RCMP investigators derive little benefit from CSIS's work."

The RCMP is also reluctant to use CSIS's information, fearing the service's involvement could jeopardize the chances of a successful prosecution.

"Ultimately, CSIS and the RCMP appear to be trapped by the constraints that both organizations believe they must operate within in order to avoid compromising prosecutions. CSIS fears the long-term results of disclosure, just as the RCMP believes that CSIS's information taints its investigations," said the report.

Frustrations on both sides

As a result, NSIRA said, the RCMP's investigations are progressing slowly while CSIS sits on a "trove of intelligence."

NSIRA said that, for example, it heard from CSIS employees exasperated by watching Mounties make investigative moves they knew to be misdirected. RCMP officers, meanwhile, knew that CSIS had information it did not provide that could help with police investigations, says the report.

The report also cited occasions when the RCMP's federal policing national security unit had access to CSIS information but didn't share it down the chain to investigators.

Leah West, a former federal lawyer who now teaches at Carleton University, said the consequence is investigations that aren't getting off the ground — which is especially troubling when it comes to violent extremism.

"They're allowed to continue to engage in whatever threatening activity they're engaged in, support the activities of others, conceivably," she said.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

"When we're talking about the risk of extremism, we know that that these things are contagious."

West also said the report raises serious questions about the status quo approach to "intelligence to evidence."

"In trying to avoid CSIS intelligence from tainting law enforcement investigations of national security threats, we just get a lack of national security criminal investigations altogether," she said.

"And then the question is which one is worse — the potential risk of a prosecution down the road collapsing, or never investigating criminal activity that is a national security threat at all?"

Old problem, new report

The RCMP and CSIS came together to create what they called a "One Vision strategy" — a strategy the watchdog said has led to improvements while leaving still "serious gaps."

NSIRA is recommending, among other things, that CSIS find a secure way to share information with police.

"Surely this state of affairs could be improved," said the report.

CSIS said it's working with the RCMP to improve the relationship.

"The RCMP and CSIS continue to be fully supportive of implementing these needed changes to our organizations. This work, and efforts of the broader community, will ensure that the Government of Canada has a strong foundation of enhanced collaboration and the best tools available to mitigate threats and ensure public safety," said CSIS spokesperson John Townsend.

"This complex work, however, is ongoing and challenges remain, particularly as it relates to the issue of intelligence and evidence. These significant challenges will require a whole-of-government approach in order to address."

The problem dates back to the creation of CSIS in 1984, following the dissolution of the RCMP Security Service. The sister agencies have long been under pressure to co-operate more effectively on security cases.

A briefing note prepared for the Public Safety minister last year warned that failing to address intelligence and evidence issues will "severely limit the government's ability to deal with the most serious current and emerging" national security threats.

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