Homegrown intelligence gap
CSIS has largely and conveniently escaped the public's wrath and, as a result, any meaningful accountability, writes Andrew Mitrovica.
CSIS is proving to be just as inept and dysfunctional as the discredited RCMP Security Service it replaced in 1984
April 17, 2008

The case that was supposed to be a defining moment in Canada's so-called "war on terror" is becoming a national embarrassment.

Earlier this week, federal lawyers stayed charges against the four "ringleaders" of a "homegrown terror" group that police and security officials once insisted with great fanfare were the spiritual and ideological architects of sinister plans to launch terrorist attacks in this country.

The media dubbed the gang "The Toronto 18." The catalogue of crimes they were apparently poised to unleash was astonishing. The plans included storming Parliament Hill, beheading the Prime Minister and seizing control of CBC's Toronto headquarters to issue a jihadist manifesto.

Today, the number of alleged "terrorists" involved in this conspiracy sits at 11 and is bound, despite the bravado of government lawyers, to plummet further.

The phalanx of police and intelligence officers who stood shoulder to shoulder, framed by Canadian flags, at a news conference a few years ago to announce that they had made arrests were nowhere in sight. These officials once claimed that the case represented a defining chapter in their battle against terror. The Crown attorneys who effectively dropped the charges against the "terror masterminds" were also mum.

One can understand the reluctance of the police and spies to address pointed questions about a case they had boasted was ironclad proof that Canada had been infected by "homegrown" terrorism. The case was also apparently evidence that the notoriously frayed relationship between cops and spies had been replaced by a new and reassuring spirit of harmony.

But the staying of the charges against four more alleged terrorists is proof that this portrait of competence and co-operation was, and remains, a sham.

The case is imploding.

Despite this, the coterie of academic "security experts" – who too often act as apologists for these agencies – has quickly offered limp excuses for the inexcusable and lasting harm visited upon these men.

One of these experts told CBC radio that intelligence officers and the police had to necessarily cast their net wide and had likely ensnared a few blameless individuals along the way.

In other words, the freedom and reputations of these men were expendable. We have heard and read this refrain before from the surrogates of Canada's federal police force and spy service. It will not wash any longer.

That the police and spies have retreated into silence while these so-called experts do their bidding publicly is not particularly surprising. But their silence and the evaporating charges are instructive for a number of important reasons.

It says much about the sorry state of Canada's security intelligence infrastructure and the sometimes incestuous relationship between that powerful and largely anonymous apparatus and some compliant members of the media who regurgitated the state-cleansed allegations and effectively branded these men terrorists.

It also speaks to the need for Ottawa to finally dispense with the tired rhetoric that these security agencies are doing a fine job, and acknowledge the undeniable fact that our intelligence service, CSIS, and the RCMP have a long and disagreeable record of falsely accusing citizens of being terrorists.

It's time for politicians to recognize that rather than protecting Canadians, these agencies have destroyed too many lives. And it's time for the officials who run these organizations and who routinely invoke "the interests of national security" to shield themselves from sanction to be held to account for the damage they have caused.

The hapless RCMP has recently borne the brunt of the public's ire because of a string of scandals. That pressure prompted the government to finally act. It appointed a civilian commissioner to try to change the corrosive and vindictive culture inside the RCMP.

Anyone even remotely familiar with the inner workings of CSIS knows that an equally dysfunctional culture exists inside Canada's spy service. Indeed, CSIS was born in 1984 out of the discredited remnants of the old RCMP Security Service. And much of the agency's existing leadership is still made up of old RCMP hands. Yet CSIS has largely and conveniently escaped the public's wrath and, as a result, any meaningful accountability.

It is important to note that this "homegrown" terror case was built, in large measure, by CSIS. Past and present senior intelligence officers have already been able to avoid serious sanction despite the role the spy service played in the Air India debacle and the shocking saga of Canadian torture survivor Maher Arar. That must change.

The prescription to fix this mess begins with turning a determined and critical eye toward CSIS. The oversight agencies charged with that important responsibility have failed Canadians.

The Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), for example, is essentially a dumping ground for former politicians who are looking for something intriguing to do in their spare time. SIRC's current chair is Gary Filmon, the former Manitoba premier. He is joined on the committee by former NDP premier Roy Romanow, Ray Speaker, a rancher and ex-Reform party member, and Aldéa Landry, a consultant and a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister.

To be sure, these part-timers are all capable appointees. But they have to squeeze in watching over CSIS's vast and growing bureaucracy between running their businesses and other personal interests.

SIRC's staff is minuscule and a revolving door for civil servants. The number of staffers hovers around 20. This figure includes administrative staff, researchers and a paralegal. Its annual operating budget is a relatively paltry $2.6 million.

SIRC is in desperate need of decisive, full-time leadership, a lot more money and experienced investigators.

As for CSIS, change must start at the top. Jim Judd, the service's current head, is a career civil servant who was predictably recycled into his new job from the Treasury Board.

Like SIRC, CSIS requires leadership that recognizes that its primary duty is to serve and protect Canadians and not the parochial interests of the institution they work for.

Unless these changes happen, more Canadians will certainly be wrested from their families, homes and jobs and dumped into solitary confinement based on vacuous "intelligence" collected by incompetent intelligence officers.

Andrew Mitrovica is the author of Covert Entry: Spies, Lies and Crimes Inside Canada's Secret Service.