Bill C-51 and accountability

Canada’s spy agency gets free pass from Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale

CSIS director Michel Coulombe announces retirement
Photo: robin_ottawa

Thirty. It’s a nice, neat, round number, isn’t it? It’s also the number of years that CSIS director Michel Coulombe served at Canada’s spy service before deciding to call it quits at the end of May, an announcement made in a stiff, videotaped message to his troops last week.

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Save for two years, Coulombe has been a CSIS officer for as long as the service has been around. He’s a lifer.

Coulombe addressed his unexpected departure by claiming that he wanted to spend more time with his family and get on with the next stage of his life. Despite this being a pat and familiar line, I’ll take the career spook at his word.

Still I wonder, is Coulombe leaving voluntarily or was he pushed? The question has to be posed, particularly since RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson also recently announced that he was leaving at the end of June. Curious timing, no?

I suspect that Coulombe wasn’t encouraged suddenly to take the exit ramp by his ever charitable boss, Public Safety minister, Ralph Goodale.

Turns out, CSIS has been led by a bunch of saints.

Like Coulombe, Goodale’s a lifer. He was first elected to Parliament in 1993. Goodness knows, it wouldn’t be good form in a small, incestuous town like Ottawa for one lifer to give another lifer the boot.

My guess is that once Coulombe reached 30 years of services rendered, and armed with a comfortable pension, he said: “Adios, my fellow Csises.”

The other, more obvious reason I have for thinking that Coulombe took the proverbial walk in the snow alone is that, since its birth in 1984, not one of the service’s eight directors has been fired. Not one.

Turns out, CSIS has been led by a bunch of saints.

It’s as if our spooks were wrapped perpetually in some sort of mystical cloak of immunity that gives them a career-long free pass because they work in “secret” to keep you and me “safe” from the infinitesimal chance we’re going to be hurt by the bad guys.

Lately, that has meant protecting us from Chinese fifth columnists, Jihadists, anti-globalization and pipeline protesters, and a sad, impressionable British Columbian couple who were entrapped with the RCMP’s help.

Before that, it mostly meant fixing an eye on the now-defunct KGB, homosexuals in the foreign service, Canadian Dimension subscribers and certain Toronto lawyers like Clayton Ruby and Rocco Galati, among other trouble makers.

Apparently, however, the list of bad guys didn’t include a young Quebecer with white nationalist sympathies who walked into a mosque with an automatic weapon and slaughtered six Muslim Canadians at prayer, while grievously injuring several others.

And remember — since Coulombe and Goodale haven’t said a word about it since that awful day — that act of terror was committed after CSIS was showered with lots more money and powers courtesy Bill C-51, a law the retiring CSIS director and his cronies insisted was absolutely necessary to prevent the very carnage that was visited upon our hastily forgotten fellow Canadians a little more than a month ago.

I might be wrong, but I can’t recall a single question being posed to Coulombe or Goodale asking if anyone was going to be held to account for the failure of our so-called “security services” to stop that horrific spasm of terrorism.

Instead, as the intrepid Matthew Behrens has noted, CSIS opted to pen a “love letter” to itself and airbrush that catastrophe out of its first public report in two years.

“Remarkably, the most deadly terrorist attack to occur in Canada in the last decade,” Behrens wrote in Now magazine, “[...] goes unmentioned, even though Prime Minister Trudeau explicitly described it as ‘a terrorist attack against Muslims.’ The 2014 murder of three New Brunswick RCMP officers by anti-government gun fanatic Justin Bourque is also nowhere to be found in CSIS’s report.”

Of course, it’s not the first time Goodale has allowed CSIS and Coulombe to evade any measure of accountability for not only the inaction, but also the outrageous actions of his charges.

Last November, a federal court judge, not a muck-raking journalist, found that for more than a decade CSIS had illegally gathered and stored the metadata of a still unknown number of Canadians who were not the subject of a national security probe.

“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.”

That’s not a slap on the wrist; it’s a punch to the face of this nation’s spy service delivered by a pissed off judge.

CSIS’s unofficial motto remains safely intact: Lie, deny, then act surprised.

"I deeply regret the court's serious concerns with respect to meeting our duty of candour, and I commit to continuing my efforts with the deputy minister of justice to address this concern," Coulombe said.

Coulombe’s exculpatory response to Justice Noel’s damning ruling was a sad testament to the well established fact that CSIS’s unofficial motto remains safely intact: Lie, deny, then act surprised.

Not surprisingly, Goodale accepted Coulombe’s tortuous assurances. It’s the same consideration Goodale gave his top spook after we learned last year that CSIS obtained the confidential tax information of Canadians without bothering to get a warrant.

Ted Finn was the first and only CSIS director to resign, after discovering in 1987 that an intelligence officer had filed an inaccurate and misleading affidavit to acquire a warrant for a wiretap. The point of Finn’s resignation was, I’m convinced, to draw an ethical line in the sand; to set a tangible standard of probity and respect for the rule of law that CSIS and his successors ought to abide by religiously.

That line has been crossed many times in the years since. It’s telling that Coulombe refused to follow the late Finn’s laudable lead given the repeated opportunities to do so and, perhaps more importantly, that Goodale didn’t can him when it could have mattered.

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