March 2, 2005
RCMP: Scrutiny could put them at risk

OTTAWA (CP) - RCMP anti-terrorism efforts may be "put at risk" if a new watchdog unduly ties the police force's hands, the Mounties argue.

In a submission to the Maher Arar inquiry, the RCMP expresses serious reservations about the federal government's plan to more closely monitor security and intelligence activities of the force. There may be a "price to pay" for limiting policing discretion in the national security domain too closely, says the submission made public Wednesday.

"When individual police officers are burdened by excessive procedural rules of conduct, the overall effectiveness of an anti-terrorism effort may be put at risk," the RCMP paper says.

"Achieving a balanced level of police discretion in national security investigations is critical, and experts have warned against creating a 'risk averse' police agency that leaves citizens vulnerable to threats."

The Mounties contend law, policy, existing internal and external accountability measures, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms provide "substantial protections" against the violation of civil liberties by police involved in national security probes.

The RCMP adds that while it would be inappropriate for the force to propose a specific model for the watchdog, any new agency must not interfere with "investigative integrity," namely police independence, control of sources and methods, and proper handling of sensitive information.

The watchdog must also respect the force's time, the RCMP says.

"The demands on RCMP personnel to meet the requests of additional review processes may adversely impact the benefits from having those investigators working to prevent terrorism, potentially causing investigational effectiveness to crumble under the weight of review."

The Mounties reject a suggestion, made in a background paper published by the Arar commission, that in the post-9/11 era there is a real potential for overly broad use of intrusive powers by police.

"This has not been the case," the RCMP says, adding that the force "continues to exercise its authority with restraint and within the confines of the law."

Arar, a Syrian-born Ottawa man, was detained in New York in September 2002, accused of involvement with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

The telecommunications engineer was subsequently sent to Syria by U.S. authorities.

Arar, who denies any participation in terrorism, says he was brutalized for months in a Damascus prison before being released in the fall of 2003.

The federal government appointed Justice Dennis O'Connor to examine the actions of RCMP members and other Canadian officials in the Arar affair.

O'Connor has also been asked to study models for a new agency to keep a closer eye on the RCMP's national security activities.

The RCMP insists it does not target any group based on its racial, ethnic or religious background.

But in a joint submission to the Arar inquiry, the Canadian Arab Federation and the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations disagree with that.

"Racial profiling is an accepted tool of Canadian security forces," the groups say.

"The RCMP investigates and monitors individuals and groups based on their faith."

The submission calls for a new RCMP watchdog with broad powers to help rebuild trust among the Arab and Muslim communities.

Under one scenario, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the watchdog over the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, would assume the same duties in relation to the RCMP's security activities.

In its submission to the Arar commission, the review committee says it "could indeed" take on the added responsibility.

The committee says the move would "create efficiencies" and would allow for a "more holistic perspective" on the national security operations of the RCMP and CSIS.