Feb. 14, 2004. 01:00 AM
Who oversees our spies? In most cases, nobody
Auditor's report offers sobering news

THOMAS WALKOM

Amid the fuss over the Liberal sponsorship scandal, one element of Auditor-General Sheila Fraser's damning report has received little public attention.

That's the eight-page section dealing with oversight of Canada's spies.

Fraser's conclusion is that there isn't enough — particularly now that Parliament has given security agencies more authority to snoop and more money to do it.

Or, as she puts it: "We would have expected that intrusive powers would be subjected to a level of review proportionate to the level of intrusion."

Some might be surprised to discover how many spy agencies there are working for the federal government. According to Fraser, the tally is 10 — eight operating in Canada plus two more working exclusively abroad.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP are the best known. But the defence department also operates three spy agencies while the Canada Border Services Agency has more than 200 intelligence operatives, plus a counterterrorism section.

The foreign affairs and immigration departments collect unspecified intelligence on Canadians and others abroad.

And in the wake of 9/11, a relatively new agency called the Financial Transaction and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada was given broad powers to look at people's bank accounts and other money transactions.

Canada also boasts a high-tech eavesdropping agency called the Communications Security Establishment. Set up during the Cold War to listen in on the Russians, it was originally banned from snooping on Canadians at home.

But since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it has been granted new powers that allow it, under the authority of the defence minister, to eavesdrop on the electronic communications of anyone inside Canada.

Fraser notes that the Communications Security Establishment became increasingly close to the RCMP during the last few years and now provides the Mounties with many of the fruits of its high-tech snoopery.

So who watches all of these watchers? Who makes sure they don't overstep their bounds?

Fraser's report is particularly sobering here, for her answer is — in most cases — nobody.

Given the circumstances of its founding, CSIS has the most elaborate review mechanism. Set up in 1984, when spies were treated with great suspicion, it answers to an external inspector-general and something called the Security Intelligence Review Committee.

Critics argue that an after-the-fact review isn't sufficient to prevent abuses. But the review committee's public reports — while heavily edited for security reasons — do give an inkling as to what the agency is up to.

Actions of the Communications Security Establishment are also subject to review after the fact by a commissioner (now former Supreme Court chief justice Antonio Lamer).

But in her report, Fraser says the commission's reports to date haven't supplied much useful information.

The RCMP is a curious case. After CSIS was set up, it was supposed to get out of the spy business. But it never did and, over time, gradually re-expanded its national security role.

The Mounties got a real boost after 9/11 when the government, under pressure from Washington, passed anti-terrorist legislation. This gave them more powers, more authority to investigate suspected terrorism — and an extra $576 mi llion over six years.

While the RCMP now vies with CSIS for the title of Number 1 spy agency, it has no formal review mechanism — only a complaints commission with limited powers.

Indeed, complaints commissioner Shirley Heafey is so frustrated by what she calls RCMP stonewalling, she's taken the force to court in an attempt to get it to give her information.

The Mounties say that as police officers involved in criminal cases, their actions are adequately monitored by the courts.

But Fraser doesn't buy that argument, noting that in its expanded counterterrorist role the RCMP often collects information or takes actions that are never intended to result in criminal prosecution.

As for the remaining eight spy services, she says, they aren't answerable to any independent review bodies.

Auditors' reports always carry responses from the government. The Privy Council Office reply to Fraser on this file, given to her a few months ago, is the usual gobbledegook — saying little and signifying less.

The RCMP response is clearer. The Mounties politely told Fraser to take a hike, saying that they thought the current system works just fine.

But between the time Fraser completed her report last fall and the time she released it this week, much has happened.

Prime Minister Paul Martin has been embarrassed into calling a judicial inquiry into the role Canadian spy agencies played in the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian deported to Syria from the U.S. to be tortured as an alleged Al Qaeda supporter.

The government has also asked the judge heading the inquiry, Ontario Appeal Court Justice Dennis O'Connor, to recommend a real review system for the Mounties.

With luck, O'Connor will take a broad look at all of Canada's spy agencies. It would be nice if someone knew what they were up to.

Additional articles by Thomas Walkom


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