March 22, 2005

Why does CSIS destroy its wiretap tapes?

Spy agency doesn't collect evidence says spokesperson


Two decades after the Canadian Security Intelligence Service erased wiretap recordings that might have been key evidence in the Air-India case, CSIS's standard procedure is still to destroy what it calls "intercepted" conversations. CSIS files only summary reports from its electronic eavesdropping -- then gets rid of tapes or transcripts within 30 days. Why not save the raw data that might some day help police or prosecutors? "We don't collect evidence," CSIS spokeswoman Barbara Campion told Maclean's. "The goal of the service is not to bring people to court. Our goal is to advise the government of threats to the security of Canada, and ultimately to neutralize those threats."

That adherence to CSIS's mandate as a civilian security service -- not a law enforcement agency -- sometimes makes its relationship with police hard to grasp. Experts generally agree that, in the years since the 1985 Air-India bombing, CSIS and the RCMP have learned to work much more closely together. Campion says CSIS now immediately passes on to police any information it gathers that might be useful in criminal investigations. But when it comes to wiretaps, she says CSIS policy remains essentially the same as in the mid-1980s, when it erased hundreds of hours of tape involving Talwinder Singh Parmar, the suspected mastermind of the Air-India bombing later killed in custody by Indian police.


The loss of those tapes is one of the most controversial aspects of the investigation that led to last week's acquittal of two men. But it's far from clear that similar information collected today wouldn't also be lost. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act directs CSIS to gather and retain information on threats to Canada's security only as "strictly necessary" -- a limitation meant to protect the civil liberties and privacy of Canadians. "The act doesn't tell us to destroy [wiretap tapes or transcripts] within 30 days," Campion says. "But the way we've interpreted the 'strictly necessary' provision, and the way our minister has agreed with our interpretation, and the way past ministers have directed us to interpret it, is to destroy the raw data after the final report is made."

That description of CSIS's operating policy surprised Wesley Wark, a security intelligence expert at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies. "If that's what they are doing, there is something seriously, seriously wrong," Wark said. "This is a critical issue."

Campion said that in rare circumstances, a senior CSIS official might agree to a request from police for a particular wiretap recording not to be destroyed. "It's definitely an exception," she said. "It's certainly not the norm that we retain anything." And she stressed that CSIS would pass this material along to police only under strict conditions -- including the understanding that police would use the information in their own investigations, not as evidence at trial. "Say we share information with the RCMP," she said. "We would ask them not to disseminate it further without our permission. And further dissemination would certainly include use in court."

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