Feds to give spy agency more powers to track terror suspects
Published Thursday, October 16, 2014 9:06AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, October 16, 2014 10:00PM EDT
The Conservative government is planning to give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service more authority to track terrorists overseas.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney made the announcement Thursday at a news conference in Alberta, telling reporters that the 30-year-old legislation governing CSIS needs an update in the wake of new terror threats at home and abroad.
“Events in recent months in Iraq and Syria have shown us that we cannot be complacent in the face of terrorism,” Blaney said. “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 travellers.”
A federal court ruled last November that CSIS didn’t have the legal authority to track Canadians on foreign soil. The ruling also prevented CSIS from using allied spy networks, including those in the U.K. and the U.S., to track terror suspects without parliamentary approval.
“We had a black hole,” Andy Ellis, deputy director of CSIS operations, told reporters Thursday. “We were unable to track where these people were, when they were moving, how they were moving and the nature and depth of the threat they posed to Canada and our allies.”
The changes to the CSIS Act, expected to be tabled next week, will clarify CSIS’s ability to act on terror threats abroad. Blaney also said the government wants to make sure that Canada’s spy agency can protect the identity of its sources when it comes to terror investigations.
Blaney later told CTV’s Power Play that the goal is to give CSIS’s sources the same legal protection afforded to informants in police investigations.
“If those sources are not protected, the trust is not there and then it creates a gap in our capability to garner information so we can move on and track those individuals,” Blaney said.
But some attorneys warn that protecting CSIS informants could mean that defence lawyers and even judges would not be able to question them in court proceedings.
Ottawa lawyer Norm Boxall, who worked on the high-profile Mohamed Harkat security certificate case, told The Canadian Press he’s “far from convinced" that CSIS needs to offer total protection to its sources.
Legal experts say that CSIS’s enhanced powers will undoubtedly face a court challenge.
And Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair said the NDP is worried “because the Conservatives have not shown any concern for personal liberties.”
Liberal MP and former defence minister John McCallum told Power Play Thursday that “robust measures” are needed to apprehend potential terrorists who want to fight abroad.
But while the Liberals are “in favour of the principle,” McCallum said they would like to see more oversight of CSIS operations, preferably by a parliamentary committee.
“The more robust these measures are, the more we need judicial and parliamentary process to provide safeguards,” he said.
Extremists in Canada
Two weeks ago, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson told the public safety committee that there are 63 ongoing investigations into more than 90 suspected extremists who either plan to join terror activities abroad, or who have returned to Canada.
Earlier this year, a report issued by Blaney's department said the government was aware of more than 130 individuals who had travelled abroad and were suspected of engaging in terror-related activities.
The issue of radicalized Canadian residents and citizens has been at the forefront of political and national security discussions in recent weeks, especially since Ottawa decided to join the U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Stephen Harper spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday about the threat of ISIS, as well as the ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa.
During the conversation, Obama thanked Harper “for Canada's considerable contributions” to the fight against ISIS, the PMO said.
With a report from CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife and files from The Canadian Press