Today’s example of a woefully uninformed journalist spouting off on a subject of crucial national importance is John Ivison, whose Monday column in the National Post is what presently passes for “balanced” commentary on what Ivison says is a renewed push by the government to transform the Canadian Security Intelligence Service into a foreign intelligence agency. By “balanced” I mean that Ivison blathers something about pros and cons, not that he provides anything in the way of intelligent and informed commentary. According to Ivison, we just need to remove one pesky piece of red tape from the CSIS Act and then Canada can have the foreign intelligence agency that a grown-up country should have.
There are two problems with this, both of which strike at the heart of Canadian democracy. I might accuse Ivison of trying to skate over them, but I don’t think he is. I think he is simply, woefully, ignorant. My reason for thinking this is that he claims we must make good reforms at CSIS to prevent another “operational failure” like Maher Arar. First of all, the Arar scandal happened at the RCMP, not at CSIS. It was their Project O Canada which betrayed the country and the values of the police force itself by handing over their database of suspected terrorists to the Americans, free of charge and without caveats.
Second, the Arar scandal was not an “operational failure.” It was actually an operational success: a suspected terrorist was captured after the Canadian and American secret police collaborated against a common enemy. He was detained, interrogated (read: tortured), and supplied information about Middle Eastern terrorist groups. The only “failure” was that the rest of us found out about it. At that point, he was released. But otherwise, that’s exactly how a security police system is supposed to work. Ask an ex-KGB officer, or an ex-Stasi one, or any North Korean or Iraqi. If you find it disturbing that a secret police service should have the power to swipe citizens off the streets and torture them, that’s because you have a more sophisticated moral sense than Ivison or his apparent sources in CSIS.
Now, let’s discuss Ivison’s particular issue: the fact that CSIS is going to become a foreign intelligence agency. It’s worth asking exactly why CSIS was prevented from foreign operations in the first place. He describes it as just a bit of needless legal fluff. It isn’t. It’s based on the fact that when we set up the Security Service after World War II, fresh from the horrors of Nazi Germany and fretting about the “papers, please” totalitarianism of Stalinist Russia, Canada, the United States, Britain, and Australia agreed that a foreign intelligence service and a domestic security service should always be separate organizations. When you combine them, you say that threats at home and threats abroad can be dealt with in the same way. Again, the KGB and Stasi goons would happily agree.
But those of us with well-developed love for democracy do not agree. The security service – here, CSIS – is an extension of the powers of the police: monitoring potentially violent dissidents and terrorists, but always with respect to the fact that they may not be criminals, always with judicial oversight, always within the mandate provided by the law. Foreign intelligence is the opposite. The foreign service is the one which stabs people in dark alleys and bribes, seduces, and blackmails foreign officials. By definition, foreign intelligence activity involves committing crimes in other countries, doing things which would also be crimes if done here at home by foreigners. By definition, foreign intelligence is a criminal enterprise.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth doing. Other countries do have foreign intelligence agencies. Possibly an argument can be made for one here. But it does mean we have to think very carefully about why we would need a foreign intelligence service, how we can separate its activities from the legal surveillance going on over at CSIS (and the RCMP), and what limitations and oversight can be set up over a government agency which exists specifically to break laws and encourage foreigners to commit treason. Unfortunately, this discussion is not going on right now.
It’s also worth remembering the specific context that made CSIS what it is. The original Security Service, housed within the RCMP, actually probably was technically illegal. Although it wasn’t an overbearing secret police like the KGB or a foreign intelligence agency like the CIA, the SS was permitted to operate more or less with impunity. After it was caught committing arson and framing suspected Quebecois separatists with stolen explosives in the 1970s, the Security Service was shut down and its operations taken over by a separate agency, CSIS, with a special oversight board, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which is supposed to keep CSIS’s activities legal. But SIRC is staffed with ex-politicians and party hacks with no knowledge of intelligence issues. So in practice it’s now toothless.
If we are to have a proper foreign intelligence agency, then the question is not whether it will engage in a mass crime spree. The only question is whether it will be committing crimes in Canada, or just crimes in other countries. And since the purpose of a foreign intelligence agency is to break the law, it doesn’t make much sense to have the same agency take on other activities in Canada, where we prefer that the government follow the law, the same as the rest of us have to. In a democracy, it cannot be otherwise.
I’ve referred to crime repeatedly, and I mean it. I cannot imagine how the Canadian government could honestly defend the rule of law internationally and operate a foreign spy service.Tweet