CSIS keen to polish image
Monday, May 14, 2007
OTTAWA -- Eager to burnish its image in the age of 24-hour news and probing public inquiries, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has launched an aggressive outreach strategy to educate key stakeholders about the service's role, and even "influence" public debate on national security.
Known as the "citizen engagement strategy," the initiative targets a wide range of groups, including ethnic communities, elected politicians and senior bureaucrats, law-enforcement partners such as the RCMP, judicial councils and legal associations, academics and think tanks, businesspeople and human-rights NGOs.
The strategy grew out of a meeting of senior managers in the summer of 2005, when they "endorsed the need for an overall outreach strategy for CSIS," according to a discussion paper recently released under the Access to Information Act.
Since 2005, CSIS officers have participated in 54 "events" as part of the strategy, including seven this year. Activities include regular meetings with Muslim groups in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, as well as attendance at social events and community career fairs, said CSIS spokeswoman Barbara Campion.
"CSIS recognizes that it needs to build trust and keep the lines of communication open with people from all segments of Canadian society. The country is changing rapidly and we need to keep pace with that change," she said in an email.
The new strategy comes as CSIS and Canada's other national-security agencies find themselves in the spotlight like never before.
The Air India inquiry has focused intense scrutiny on what security officials knew of a potential threat before the bombing of Air India Flight 182 in 1985.
Before that, the O'Connor inquiry identified numerous shortcomings in how securities agencies, especially the RCMP, handled the Maher Arar affair.
In the early days of CSIS, which was founded in 1984 and has a mandate to collect intelligence on threats related to Canada's national security, there was "really no sense of engagement as a strategy," said Wesley Wark, a national-security expert at the University of Toronto.
Back then, CSIS officers attended academic conferences "incognito," silently taking notes at the back of the room, he said. Nowadays, they mingle relatively freely with conference attendees and even exchange business cards.
Senior officials began to recognize the need for more openness in the 1990s, but it was not until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that the service began to "come out from the shadows," said Wark.
Under former director Ward Elcock and now Jim Judd, the service has engaged in a "cautious engagement strategy" to educate the public about CSIS's role, he said.
Although he refuses to scrum with reporters and rarely grants interviews, Judd makes regular appearances before parliamentary committ ees, and he has said that CSIS needs to be speak more openly about what it does.
While the RCMP lurches from scandal to scandal, CSIS has been able to "get ahead" of the news and improve its image among Canadians, said Wark.
But the definition of "outreach" appears to sometimes go beyond simply educating the public, according to the discussion paper, obtained for CanWest News by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin.
The paper was written about a year ago by CSIS' director general of communications.
Lorne Waldman, a lawyer who has represented Maher Arar, welcomed the attempt by CSIS to be more forthcoming and transparent, a move that he and others called for during the O'Connor inquiry.
But after reading the paper, he questioned whether the strategy is genuinely aimed at educating, or lobbying key decision makers and community leaders.
"It's called an outreach' effort, but I think it should be probably re-titled lobbying effort to obtain government support for their activities.'"
© CanWest News Service 2007
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