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CSIS 'ignored' terror threats
ex-spies: Detailed warnings weren't even read because they were in French, men say
Ian MacLeod
The Ottawa Citizen

Terrorism and other national security reports from Montreal CSIS agents were ignored or delayed in translation because of anti-French prejudices and language incompetence within the spy agency's senior Ottawa ranks, according to complaints under review by the federal language watchdog.

A former veteran CSIS agent who worked as a counter-terrorism intelligence officer in the agency's Montreal office made the allegations in recent interviews with the Citizen and Radio Canada.

A second veteran agent, also a francophone and now retired, voiced similar complaints to the Citizen yesterday.

A court order prohibits publicly identifying the first former agent. The other former agent spoke on condition of anonymity.

The agency has declined to comment on their accusations.

CSIS was scandalized by similar allegations in the mid 1980s.

A 1987 report by the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which oversees the agency, complained it was essentially an English organization that treated its French-speaking members as second-class citizens. It said the use of French in the security service was regarded as a "troublesome frill."

CSIS in recent years has boosted French-language training and requirements for many employees, notably intelligence officers and managers.

"As an organization, we've greatly improved," says CSIS spokeswoman Barbara Campion, also an intelligence agent. "When I joined the service 16 years ago, I worked in an area where I dealt with Quebec region and there was never any problem in reading French-language reports."

But the two former agents say the anti-French attitude continued to dog the service when they retired a few years ago. Based on conversations with current employees, they say the practice continues.

One of the former agents said the language biases contributed to millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam avoiding arrest in Canada. The Algerian terrorist operated in Montreal and is now in a U.S. prison.

"In the mid-90s, the most important thing that we had on the extremist element was the Algerian file" in Montreal, the agent said. "At that same period of time, the guy who was in charge of the Algerian desk in Ottawa was unilingual English.

"So here you've got the most important file -- everybody speaks French, everything is happening in Montreal, Ressam and his gang are the prime element -- and nothing is happening because the guy is not capable of reading the reports."

CSIS "stopped surveillance on those guys three months before he was arrested by the Americans. This is how little and how poor the investigation was going."

Added the other former agent: "There's a lot of Algerians in Montreal and (some) are really active and some information that was sent (to Ottawa) in French was never read. And then they come out and they're surprised that some (people) are active with al-Qaeda or another terrorist group. It's incredible.

"In every section, every sphere of activity, if you find a terrorist in Montreal or somebody suspected of terrorism, it will be reported in French. And it doesn't always get to the top and it's not always given the attention or the importance it would be if it came from Toronto."

He cited the 1990 Oka crisis as another example of breakdown between the two solitudes at CSIS.

"Our native section investigators had predicted six months before that this was a powder keg and was going to explode. But it was all reported in French; and Ottawa -- I don't know if they understood it wrong or they just didn't read the reports -- they said it's only isolated acts, and it's only a small amount of people, and it's not going to do anything.

"Well, six months after, it exploded. Montreal is not always listened to."

Both former agents say the long-festering language tensions within the service are a threat to national security, either through inattention to French-language intelligence reports or the danger of national security leaks by disgruntled employees, who also might be courted by foreign intelligence services trying to recruit double-agents.

Their accusations come on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., which the 9/11 Commission blamed on a catastrophic breakdown in U.S. intelligence. They also follow recent statements from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation portraying Montreal as a hotbed of activities by suspected Tamil Tiger terrorists.

Official Languages Commissioner Dyane Adam said yesterday her office will "look into" the former agents' accusations made to the Citizen and Radio Canada, though neither man has filed a complaint with her office.

If the preliminary review finds their statements have merit, the office will "decide on the best way to address this issue." One option would be to conduct a formal audit into whether francophone CSIS employees can work freely in their language, including communicating with supervisors.

"Any time we have allegations of intimidation ... with respect to official languages ... we're always concerned," she said.

A spokeswoman for the Security Intelligence Review Committee was not aware of the former agents' complaints, or that Ms. Adam's office had launched a preliminary review. Susan Pollak said the matter is best dealt with by Ms. Adam's office. CSIS, meanwhile, said late yesterday it has not been notified of the commission's intervention.

During the 1987 language scandal, 15 French-speaking agents, in a letter to the House of Commons official languages committee, charged that CSIS harboured "a ferocious opposition to the French fact."

But Ron Atkey, who chaired the CSIS review committee from 1984 to 1989, said this week that despite his committee's scathing report, none of the allegations was ever proved.

"I think it was just disgruntlement sometimes from the Quebec region. I never had any case brought to my attention or any situation brought to my attention where CSIS failed to do its job because it hadn't translated (an intelligence report) from French to English."

The two former agents say the language tensions at CSIS are a hangover from the old RCMP Security Service, from which many anglophone CSIS managers were recruited. (The 1987 committee report reached a similar conclusion.)

"This redneck aspect has been omnipresent within the ranks for a long period of time," said one, who also used to work for the RCMP Security Service. "During the FLQ crisis, when the war measures were declared, all the French investigators (in Montreal) were removed from the FLQ files and only western investigators from the western provinces came in."

The situation at CSIS, he said, is "part of the dark heritage of those Mountie days," and current CSIS spies, who are not unionized, have few options if they want to complain.

"If you've got something that is happening against you, you're not allowed to consult any lawyer outside of CSIS because they don't have security clearance.

"You're not allowed to talk to basically anybody to get any support. It is shameful.

"CSIS has been using that bubble to literally abuse excellent workers. This inability for employees to (complain), they're denied that, all under the umbrella of national security and secrecy. CSIS hides behind it."

About 38 per cent of CSIS's nearly 2,400 employees are francophones. Statistics on how many of those are bilingual were not available. But one condition of employment for intelligence officers now is that they be fully bilingual or functionally bilingual.

"The service is not committed not just to letter but also to the spirit of the Official Languages Act," said Ms. Campion.

"We're the only federal institution that provides its core professional group -- the intelligence officers -- with full-time language training upon hiring at their full salary. One of the conditions of employment ... is to be fully bilingual or functionally bilingual."

The service also has, since 1996, increased the percentage of employees required to achieve "C level" fluency.< /p>

Complaints to the languages commissioner's office have fallen dramatically. In 1986, the office received about 1,700 complaints from CSIS employees, mostly dealing with language issues when dealing with the Ottawa headquarters staff. Another 456 were filed in 1987. All were upheld, though many stemmed from a collective incident, such as a single memo from headquarters written only in English.

There have been no language complaints filed by CSIS employees with the commission in the last five years.

Ian MacLeod is editor for national security and terrorism

© The Ottawa Citizen 2006

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