CIA's revelations find echo north of the border
July 11, 2007

The CIA has come clean. At least that's what the U.S. espionage agency wants you to believe now that it has released a 702-page dossier detailing its covert operations during much of the Cold War.

Dubbed the "family jewels," the documents catalogue the agency's involvement in secret drug testing on unsuspecting U.S. citizens (which mirror CIA financed brainwashing experiments on Canadian psychiatric patients), rampant and illegal spying on reporters and anti-war demonstrators and a bizarre assortment of assassination plots against foreign leaders.

The airing of the CIA's soiled laundry was designed, in part, to reassure Americans and the world that the bad old days when the agency's cowboys ran amok around the globe are over. The suddenly repentant spy service has emerged from its disreputable past with a new-found fidelity to the rule of law.

The problem with this rosy construct is that it is demonstrably false.

Indeed, the nature and scope of misdeeds by the CIA and other intelligence services today arguably eclipse those of the Vietnam War period in terms of the threat they pose to civil liberties and human rights.

Methods of gathering so-called "intelligence" once deemed illegal or at least that tested lawful boundaries now have the veneer of legality. This new and convenient legal regime has been achieved largely through secret executive orders issued by President George Bush and enacted with the complicity of scores of Western democracies.

Here are the incriminating facts:

Secret CIA-run jails scattered across the Balkans and Central Europe hold terror suspects incommunicado and indefinitely without charge.

The odious practice of abducting, and deporting men like Canadian software engineer Maher Arar – euphemistically called "renditions" – continues unabated.

The use of simulated drowning or "water-boarding," sleep deprivation, dogs and other coercive interrogation techniques is now routine.

More evidence of this new "legal" framework that effectively provides cover to America's spies can be found in the pervasive spying being conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA). No longer even nominally constrained by the need to secure judicially approved warrants, this super secret eavesdropping apparatus scours the electronic ether, sucking in email, cellphone and Internet traffic at will.

The situation in Canada is no more reassuring.

There was pathetically little attention paid among Members of Parliament, civil libertarians and journalists when the federal government moved unilaterally to lift the ban on the Communications Security Establishment – our little-known equivalent of the NSA – on intercepting the email and cellphone traffic of persons living in Canada shortly after 9/11.

Without even a perfunctory debate in Parliament, Ottawa granted an immensely powerful and largely unknown espionage agency the authority to collect cyber communications of anyone in Canada without a court order.

As well, this nation's possible role in the U.S.-led "renditions" program remains murky. Industrious work by Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill has, however, revealed that planes tied to the CIA have made scores of landings in Canada since 9/11. Flight data obtained by Bronskill showed that "at least seven different planes owned by reputed CIA shell corporations have landed at Canadian airports."

One of the American jets that landed here was the same sleek white aircraft that apparently ferried Arar to Amman, Jordan. From there, he was driven to Syria where he was tortured and imprisoned in a coffin-like cell. Efforts by human rights groups to find out whether any of the flights have carried suspects to countries where they may be tortured have, predictably, been rebuffed.

Alarmingly AWOL through all of this has been the oversight bodies that are supposed to keep an alert eye on these spy services. While the powers, resources and coffers of spies have mushroomed since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been no equivalent boost in the money and staff afforded to their already undermanned and limp watchdogs.

For example, rather than insisting that cabinet redress this dangerous imbalance, the outgoing chairperson of the Security Intelligence Review Committee – the monitor of Canada's spy service, CSIS – instead lectured Canadians on how we needed to develop the "nerve" to confront "domestic and international security threats."

Her conversion from watcher to cheerleader was sealed when she offered this parting advice: "We're going to have to play in the big leagues. It won't always be nice, it won't always be easy, and it won't always be pretty, but that's the real world we live in."

Apparently, in the skewed realpolitik of the spymasters and their so-called watchdogs, the "real" world demands that we grant our spy services carte blanche. Is it any wonder that the old ways of doing things are still dangerously in vogue?