June 12, 2005
Expanded electronic snooping agency assumes prominent anti-terror role

OTTAWA (CP) - Canada's secret eavesdropping agency is undergoing its biggest expansion in decades as it takes on a greater role in the fight against terrorism.

The clandestine Communications Security Establishment, a wing of the Defence Department that snoops on foreign conversations and messages, has made its primary mission the countering of dangerous extremists.

Staff levels at the Ottawa-based CSE are expected to jump to 1,650 from about 950 before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

The spy agency's annual budget will reach $220 million by 2007-08, a 57 per cent increase over pre-9/11 levels.

"Over the past year, CSE has significantly expanded its security intelligence focus and collection capabilities," says a recent federal report on national security projects.

At CSE's unassuming headquarters, computer whizzes, mathematicians and language specialists sift and sort intercepted data to help analysts create reports for other government security agencies.

Military listening posts across the country assist CSE's efforts to eavesdrop on suspected spies, terrorists and other criminals as well as process information helpful to Canada's foreign policy interests and soldiers posted abroad.

Intelligence provided by CSE "has been directly responsible for helping to protect Canadian troops in Afghanistan from terrorist attack," agency chief Keith Coulter recently told a Commons committee.

"I can also say that CSE has provided intelligence on foreign terrorist targets used to protect the safety and interest of Canadians and our closest allies."

Coulter credits new powers in the Anti-Terrorism Act, ushered in following Sept. 11, that give CSE more flexibility.

As a foreign intelligence agency, CSE is still forbidden from focusing its spy efforts specifically on Canadians. However, the act permits the defence minister to authorize CSE operations even if doing so risks intercepting some communications, such as a phone call, involving Canadians.

Should this happen, the law allows CSE to use information deemed essential to international affairs, defence or security.

Coulter revealed the agency has been granted 24 such ministerial authorizations, each valid for one year, since the legislation took effect in 2002. Six were still in force as of early last month.

Antonio Lamer, the retired Supreme Court chief justice who serves as watchdog over CSE, is expected to discuss the agency's record on respecting privacy rights Monday when he appears before a Senate committee studying the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Foreign Affairs, the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service are among the major beneficiaries of CSE's efforts to zero in on valuable information.

Three years ago, the electronic spy service went on a hiring binge, seeking computer scientists, engineers, math specialists, physicists, intelligence and policy analysts, code-makers and breakers, and recruits fluent in African, Asian, European and Middle Eastern languages.

CSE has run out of space for employees at its campus in Ottawa's south end. It is planning two new, temporary buildings until the government can figure out a long-term solution.

CSE's Office of Counterterrorism now operates seven days a week, and the agency's intelligence-gathering improvements allow it to work more closely with allied agencies in the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, the federal report says.

Intelligence experts from CSE are also part of the government's new threat assessment centre, which distributes reports to decision-makers on possible security risks.

In addition, CSE is working on ways to better predict attacks from cyberspace as part of its role in securing federal computer networks.

"The cyber-security issues are going to get bigger if we don't do the right things," Coulter told the committee.

"I'm encouraged by some of the latest developments, including the latest budget increase for CSE to get out in front of things rather than just react as incidents and cyber-attacks occur."