Feb. 7, 2004. 01:00 AM
RCMP still playing I spy
Canada has two overarching security agencies, CSIS and the Mounties. But when the intelligence is wrong, the consequences can be


Just before Christmas, a Halifax woman named Mary MacDonald received the surprise of her life.

RCMP officers contacted the disabled single mother to formally inform her that an e-mail sent to her local MP, complaining about a Paul Martin fundraising dinner, had put her afoul of Canada's anti-terrorism laws.

In the message, sent to local Liberal MP (and now fisheries minister) Geoff Regan, MacDonald fumed about the then prime-minister-designate dining in splendour while the poor lined up at food banks.

"If I had the opportunity to do so," she wrote, "I would welcome the chance to spit in this man's face."

Three years ago, few would have paid much attention to the intemperate political rhetoric of an aggrieved voter.

But in the post 9/11 world, everything is deemed serious. Regan's office passed the e-mail on to the Mounties.

They, in turn, contacted MacDonald to warn her that, in the wake of Canada's new anti-terror legislation, she faced up to five years in jail for threatening an "internationally protected person."

They told her they wouldn't charge her, but that from then on her name would be on file with the security services.

"I found myself in a very scary situation," a tearful MacDonald told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. "I will be curbing my letter writing and e-mail writing in the future."

MacDonald's case, which didn't receive much attention at the time, is trivial and telling.

On the one hand, nothing serious happened. She was not charged.

Yet, the incident also underlines the new, more intrusive role that the RCMP and other Canadian security agencies play in daily life.

New powers vested in the RCMP, as well as the renewed emphasis on information-gathering by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and other government spy agencies, doesn't affect just villains.

Anyone can get caught in the net.

As Ottawa computer consultant Maher Arar found, dubious intelligence can, literally, wreck a Canadian citizen's life.

As reporter Juliet O'Neill found (after Mounties searched her home last month for allegedly violating the Security of Information Act — a revamped version of the old Official Secrets Act) not even journalists are exempt.

As Syrian refugee Hassan Almrei is discovering, after 29 Kafkaesque months in a Toronto jail, non-citizen residents are particularly vulnerable.

They can be jailed indefinitely on the basis of intelligence they are not allowed to see and allegations they're not allowed to know.

Canada has a host of spies at play, from CSIS and the RCMP to the Communications Security Establishment (which secretly intercepts telephone calls) to lesser-known agencies operating out of federal departments, provincial police forces and even local police departments.

The federal Security Intelligence Review Committee, which oversees CSIS, noted pointedly four years ago that few have any kind of legislative civilian oversight.

Theoretically, the Mounties are supposed to answer to a public complaints commission. But its authority is limited to such a degree that the federal government has asked a just-announced judicial inquiry into the Arar case to come up with a better idea.

Indeed, so dysfunctional is the relationship between the RCMP and its complaints commission that commission head Shirley Heafey has taken the extraordinary step of asking a federal court to force t he Mounties to give her the information she wants.

In an affidavit filed with the court, Heafey writes that police actions in normal criminal cases are monitored at trial. But under new anti-terrorism laws, she goes on, there can be numerous cases "involving intrusive police conduct" that won't go to trial in open court, meaning judges won't have the chance to exercise normal supervisory powers.

(An RCMP spokesperson said the force won't comment on the dispute while it is before the courts.)

Heafey's court action speaks to the potentially dangerous side of Canada's spies. Yet, at other times, it seems easy to dismiss them as bunglers.

Accounts from the ongoing Vancouver trial of two men charged in the 1985 Air-India bombing, for example, read in places like malevolent episodes of the Keystone Kops.

According to court documents, CSIS destroyed tapes and transcripts relevant to the case without telling the Mounties. There's even a suggestion that CSIS may have known about the terror plot before it happened — but didn't warn anyone.

For their part, the Mounties have been forced to acknowledge that they repeatedly failed to keep notes and tape recordings of interviews with a key prosecution witness.

However, the problems emerging at the Air-India trial also underscore divisions among Canadian security agencies that, in a roundabout way, may help to explain some of the excesses occurring now.

These divisions date to the establishment of CSIS in 1984 after the royal commission into so-called RCMP dirty tricks blasted the Mounties and recommended that they get out of the spy business.

To many Mounties, the new civilian agency was a bitter affront. To many CSIS agents, a number of them ex-Mounties, the paramilitary RCMP was a relic from another time.

From the beginning, bitter jurisdictional conflicts flared between the new agency and the RCMP.

Indeed, the RCMP never really accepted the notion that it abandon the national security field. Shortly after they were forced to disband their old security service, the Mounties quietly created a replacement — a new national security intelligence section working with new regional RCMP national security investigation sections.

At times, the new RCMP security sections worked with CSIS. At times, they did not.

Memos released during a 1999 Vancouver court hearing, for example, describe how suspects in an alleged animal rights terrorism case were shadowed by convoys of competing RCMP and CSIS undercover agents — all driving similar unmarked rental cars.

As well, the Mounties held on to their extensive contacts with foreign spies.

This became such a problem that in 1999, the Security Intelligence Review Committee noted that foreign spy agencies were routinely bypassing CSIS and dealing directly with the RCMP.

In short, the Mounties never really got out of the spy game.

Such jurisdictional problems, however, stemmed from more than jealousy. As police officers, Mounties have the power to arrest. CSIS agents do not. Nor does CSIS have the authority to hold anyone for interrogation.

CSIS doesn't like having its material used in open court, for fear of compromising its sources. The RCMP needs information that can be used in open court since its primary job — at least before 2001 — was to bring criminals to trial.

While analysts say the interagency rivalry toned down over time, it never disappeared.

And when two airplanes crashed into New York's World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the Mounties were ready to forge ahead.

Their entrée was the Liberal government's sweeping anti-terrorism bill, one that dramatically expanded the notion of terrorism as a Criminal Code offence — and, therefore, expanded the territory of the federal police force charged with enforcing this code.

RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli put it bluntly in a 2002 speech.

"When we added terrorist-related offences to the Criminal Code, the gap between security intelligence and criminal intelligence narrowed. As a result, the gap between the mandate of the RCMP and that of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service narrowed as well."

It was official. Canada now had not just one overarching spy agency but two.

The key problem with intelligence is that it can be desperately wrong. To put it another way, intelligence is not always very smart.

As one former CSIS agent explains, it's partly the nature of the business. Spying is a bit like journalism; everyone has a stake in making the information look as dramatic as possible.

A confidential informant has a vested interest in spicing up the material he supplies because he's more likely to get better pay. His handler, particularly in the context of 9/11, is under pressure to produce evidence of terrorism. And so are the handlers' superiors, all the way up the line.

At the end, the former agent says, a final CSIS report may be markedly different in tone from the original the field agent produced. Information that supports the theory that a target is a terrorist threat will tend to be emphasized. Information that contradicts this will tend to be downplayed.

The second problem is that much of the information comes from foreign spy agencies whose sources are impossible to check.

In return, CSIS and the RCMP are expected to give these agencies information — without knowing how it will be used.

Ottawa won't reveal with whom it shares spy information. That's secret.

But Carleton University professor and security expert Martin Rudner says that in the wake of 9/11, CSIS and the RCMP have made intelligence sharing arrangements with countries that Canada used to avoid — such as Syria.

This has raised serious questions about how this shared intelligence is used.

Arar, for instance, was deported by U.S. authorities to Syria for torture after, according to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Americans received intelligence from the RCMP and CSIS.

Another Canadian, Abdullah Almalki, is still in jail in Syria. He was arrested on a trip there shortly after RCMP officers raided his home in Canada and collected information on him.

Yet another Canadian, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati, finally made it home last month after more than two years in Egyptian and Syrian jails. He, too, was jailed and tortured in Syria after being interrogated by CSIS agents in Canada.

And refugee claimant Almrei, who has family connections to critics of the Syrian regime, is being held in a Toronto jail for deportation to Syria on the basis of secret intelligence (source unknown) that calls him a security risk.

Are any of these cases connected to this new intelligence relationship? Rudner says, yes.

"If we want intelligence from them, we have to give some back. We have to export it. And if you give them intelligence, you can't set conditions on how they'll use it."

And then he asks a question that Arar, Almalki, Abou-Elmaati, Almrei and maybe even Mary MacDonald would like answered: How much intelligence should Canadian spooks pass on to other countries?

"What threshold do you set? Do you share gut feeling, inklings, probable cause? ... Who sets the standards? Government has never addressed these questions."

Additional articles by Thomas Walkom

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