State surveillance

No laws, no consequences: Canada’s spies are spying on us

CSIS breaks laws with impunity as it surveils Canadians
Photo: Corey Burger

Fact one: Since its birth in 1984, only one CSIS officer has ever been charged with a crime. That was in 1998. The veteran intelligence officer wriggled off the RCMP’s hook when the charges he was facing were inexplicably withdrawn by the Crown on the eve of his trial.

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This means that in the 32 years that Canada’s spy service has been spying, only one of the tens of thousands of members of that civilian agency has been accused of breaking the law.

As I see it, there are two explanations. The first is that CSIS was and is populated by saints who always — cross their hearts and hope to die — obey the law in defending Canada’s national security.

The other, more plausible explanation, is that the men and women, but mostly men, from top to bottom at CSIS know they’re above the rule of law and immune from the rod, including, apparently, the Criminal Code the rest of us must abide by.

Ten years of illegal spying on Canadians

If anyone doubted that a culture of impunity is endemic at CSIS, then they’re either naïve or have already discarded last week’s news from the Federal Court. A judge found that for the past 10 years, the spy service illegally accessed the personal information — known as metadata — of an untold number of people who weren’t the subject of a national security probe.

CSIS has been operating a covert, criminal enterprise that didn’t target terrorists or foreign spies, but the very Canadians it’s supposed to “protect.”

“Ultimately, the rule of law must prevail,” Justice Simon Noel wrote. “Without it, the actions of people and institutions cannot be trusted to accurately reflect the purpose they were entrusted to fulfil.”

Stripped of the stock euphemisms, Justice Noel told Canadians that CSIS has been operating a covert, criminal enterprise that didn’t target terrorists or foreign spies, but the very Canadians it’s supposed to “protect.”

A total lack of consequences

Fact two: Edward Snowden has warned the world many times, in many ways, that the vast, cobweb-like security-intelligence infrastructure of western governments is designed, directed and devoted principally to monitoring citizens, not the West’s latest iteration of Osama bin Laden.

Last week’s revelations prove, beyond any doubt, Snowden’s overarching point about the nature and intent of the omnipotent surveillance state not only in Canada, but also in our “intelligence partners.”

That was all, of course, before a Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. Since then, CSIS and the powers-that-be in Ottawa have been able to take comfortable refuge in the corporate media’s agility to move from one “outrage” to another with Usain Bolt-like speed, confident that the news cycles would be dominated by the ugly denouement of the U.S. election and the ascendency of a fascist into the aptly named White House.

Still, you would have thought, quite reasonably, that, however stale by corporate media standards, Justice Noel’s damning ruling would have meant that someone, anyone, inside CSIS who was associated with, or had knowledge of, this previously secret, decade-old crime would be instantly called before the dock.

The Untouchables

Not surprisingly, that hasn’t happened because CSIS is the modern-day, but less virtuous version, of The Untouchables.

Instead, CSIS director Michel Coulombe has said, in effect, that he promises that his spies will finally stop breaking the law now that a judge has exposed that they’ve been breaking the law for a long time.

By golly, he was going to give our not-so-law-abiding spooks a swift, stern lecture as pseudo punishment for all their law-breaking.

Fact three: If a judge decided that you or I had broken the law for a decade, chances are we would be in handcuffs or in jail and a promise — however earnest – to stop breaking the law wouldn’t carry much weight with the court.

Predictably, Coulombe’s pledge appears to have satisfied his boss, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who told Canadians that, by golly, he was going to give our not-so-law-abiding spooks a swift, stern lecture as pseudo punishment for all their law-breaking.

That might be the same lecture Goodale gave Coulombe and company after the public learned earlier this year that CSIS got its mitts on the confidential tax information of countless Canadians without troubling to get, you know, a warrant.

Oh well, other public safety ministers didn’t even bother with what amounts to a limp, time-out talk with our spooks when they misled — to put it charitably — another Federal Court judge.

For years, Toronto lawyer Rocco Galati insisted, in court, that CSIS was listening in to supposedly sacrosanct calls with his clients. CSIS and justice department lawyers told the same court Galati was making it up.

In 2012, CSIS admitted in an affidavit that it had indeed been tapping Galati’s calls with two men it considered security risks. To my knowledge, no one inside CSIS was held to account.

Look, CSIS officers are so confident that they’re immune from accountability that they pilfer the sensitive information of other CSIS officers.

Business as usual

Fact four: In 2000, then Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips, found that a senior CSIS manager had illegally obtained and later destroyed the medical and psychological records of veteran CSIS officer Jean Luc Marchessault.

Marchessault had appealed to Phillips as part of an unsuccessful bid to keep his job. In his lengthy ruling, Phillips told the ex-officer that he might find some comfort in knowing that his ruling “may” prevent CSIS from breaking the law in the future.

“Unfortunately, my findings do not change the fact that another individual was made aware of your personal information. You may, however, find some satisfaction in knowing that as a result of your complaint, others may be spared from having their privacy invaded,” Phillips wrote.

Fast forward to 2016 and CSIS has, it turns out, illegally invaded the privacy of so many more Canadians.

For The Untouchables, it’s just business as usual.

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