Former CSIS boss warns against terrorism fight

Justice John Major oversees the Air India inquiry in Ottawa Tuesday, Sept 18, 2007. (CP / Jonathan Hayward)

Justice John Major oversees the Air India inquiry in Ottawa Tuesday, Sept 18, 2007. (CP / Jonathan Hayward)

The Canadian Press
Updated: Tue. Dec. 4 2007 6:54 PM ET

OTTAWA — Canadians should be wary of giving too free a rein to police in the name of fighting terrorism, says the former head of the of the country's spy agency.

Reid Morden told the Air India inquiry Tuesday that he's against any attempt to water down the legal test the RCMP must pass to obtain wiretaps or otherwise conduct surveillance of citizens.

He acknowledged that his former agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, already has the power to eavesdrop and keep tabs on people based on mere suspicion -- rather than hard evidence --that they may be a threat to national security.

But Morden argued it would have "tremendous societal implications'' to let the Mounties do the same.

"I really do believe it is too high a price to pay to change the threshold for the police to investigate.''

John Major, the former Supreme Court of Canada judge who heads the inquiry, appeared more willing to consider the possibility of broadening police investigative powers in anti-terror cases.

"You wouldn't apply it to other criminal activities, because the perception is those other activities do not threaten the nation as a whole,'' said Major. "But terrorist activities have the effect of potentially destroying countries, civilizations.''

Morden expressed fear, however, that if police won an exception for anti-terror investigations they wouldn't want to stop there.

"I would suggest there is a good deal of danger that holding that particular line -- once you give people some kind of legislative wedge -- would be very difficult.''

Turf wars between CSIS and the RCMP have been a central theme at the inquiry, which is belatedly examining the 1985 downing of Air India Flight 182 by a terrorist bomb that took 329 lives.

One of the chief complaints by the Mounties was that CSIS erased hundreds of hours of wiretap tapes of key suspects. Although written summaries were retained, the loss of the originals meant the RCMP couldn't use them in court to build a case against the Sikh extremists accused of the bombing.

Morden, who didn't take over as CSIS director until 1987, gave a highly publicized interview that year in which he described the erasures as merely part of the service's standard operating policy at the time.

"I have not honestly seen anything that drives me to alter my view,'' he insisted Tuesday, despite a subsequent court ruling that labelled the destruction of the tapes "unacceptable negligence'' on the part of the spy service.

Morden also backed away from another, more recent interview in which he admitted that CSIS had "dropped the ball'' in its handling of the Air India case. If he had it to do over again, he said, he wouldn't use those words.

In reality, he told Major, the bombing was a tragedy that sprang from a "confluence of events'' in which no one agency bears all the blame.

Senior RCMP witnesses, including former commissioners Robert Simmonds and Giuliano Zaccardelli, have suggested reforms are needed to guard against future failures in the continuing fight against terrorism.

Simmonds contended the Mounties should get back into the intelligence field they vacated with the creation of CSIS in 1984, while Zaccardelli has argued for legislative and policy changes to improve the flow of information between police and intelligence officers.

Critics point out the RCMP was stripped of its intelligence service precisely because it committed abuses -- including arson, theft and other crimes -- in its campaign against Quebec separatism in the 1970s.

And Zaccardelli was forced from his job over the force's mishandling of the Maher Arar affair, in which the Ottawa engineer was wrongly labelled an al-Qaida operative.

Morden agreed it might be worthwhile to review the legislative framework governing CSIS. But he warned that laws and regulations are no substitute for good will and willingness to co-operate on both sides.

Though he left CSIS in 1991, he said he believes relations with the Mounties have improved in recent years and cautioned against radical restructuring of the current division of powers.

"I don's see a pressing need or imperative at this moment to change the regime which has been set up and which has been functioning now for 20-odd years.''

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