CANADA’S SPY-CATCHERS OVER-COME A ROUGH START TO WIN RESPECT IN A SECRET WORLD
His office on the third floor of a nondescript building in downtown Ottawa is decorated with souvenirs from a 22-year career in the foreign service. Scattered among the keepsakes are photographs from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, a West German border guard’s cap and a coffee mug bearing the insignia of the KGB, the Soviet secret police and espionage agency. But Reid Morden’s office also contains several barbed references to his current duties as a top intelligence official. On a wall next to his desk is a collection of framed editorial cartoons satirizing the activities of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the five-year-old counterespionage agency that he heads. As Morden acknowledges, CSIS’s early record was blemished by complaints of poor management, feuding with the RCMP and investigative bungling. “The organization was having trouble getting its act together,” said Morden. “But I think the turmoil is behind us. Things could still be better, but they are moving in the right direction.”
By and large, most experts in the field of security and intelligence appear to agree that CSIS’s performance has improved. Senior officials in several foreign intelligence agencies told Maclean’s that CSIS has won acceptance in Western security circles. Observed the head of one Northern European secret service: “The Canadians are less inclined to be caught unawares by a new development” than some other nations. And in a paper in the July issue of the British journal Intelligence and National Security, Peter Gill, a lecturer at Liverpool Polytechnic’s School of Social Science in England, writes that Canada’s creation of an independent watchdog agency to review the activities of CSIS has been effective in influencing the agency to give up several practices that brought it early criticism, most notably the surveillance of too wide a range of Canadian groups and individuals.
Still, CSIS, established in 1984 to replace the discredited Security Service of the RCMP, continues to be dogged by doubts about its relationship with the Mounties. Last January, the RCMP formed a new branch called the National Security Investigative Directorate, raising questions about whether the Mounties were trying to return to the intelligence field, a responsibility ceded to CSIS. “We have been concerned in the past that the RCMP might try to develop an intelligence-gathering capability,” said Jean-Jacques Blais, a former Liberal solicitor general who is now a member of the Security and Intelligence Review Committee that oversees CSIS. “Evidently, it is an issue that needs to be addressed again. It seems that the RCMP has a rather high opinion of itself.”
The subject is certain to be a central focus of a five-year review of CSIS by a special all-party committee of MPs, originally scheduled to begin this week but now likely to start work in September. That review will also examine lingering complaints from civil libertarians that CSIS still casts its surveillance net too widely, as well as other suggestions that, if anything, the agency needs more power rather than less.
Within the counterespionage fraternity, however, CSIS appears to have won its spurs. British Conservative MP Rupert Allason, who has written several books on security and intelligence under the pen name Nigel West, told Maclean’s that CSIS representatives have been accepted on the highly secret Western intelligence exchange panel known by the acronym CAZAB (for its membership of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Britain). The panel analyses the movement of hostile secret agents around the globe and, notes Allason: “It’s like a private club that individuals are put up for. A single blackball from any country will prevent someone from joining.”
Despite those successes, at home CSIS remains haunted by its origins as the civilian replacement for the RCMP’s former Security Service, and signs of rivalry and mutual suspicion between the two agencies persist. Some Mounties still express resentment over the government’s decision to disband the Security Service in the wake of the 1981 McDonald Commission report on RCMP wrongdoing. Said a Montreal-based RCMP inspector last week: “It was as if the government said, ‘We cannot trust you with that much power.’ ” At the same time, experts say that the two agencies have often been reluctant to co-operate with each other on investigations. Said Peter Russell, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who served as research director to the McDonald Commission: “Sources of information are precious to police, and there is always a reluctance to share them with newcomers.”
Relations between the RCMP and CSIS were further strained when the agency assisted the Mounties in their investigation into the bombing of an Air-India jet in June, 1985, which killed all 329 people on board. During the investigation, CSIS obtained a wiretap that led to the arrests of two men on charges of conspiring to murder a visiting Indian cabinet minister in 1986. But the charges were stayed after the agency acknowledged that it had included misleading information in an affidavit used to obtain a Federal Court warrant for the wiretap. The uproar over that case led to the resignation of the agency’s first director, Thomas D’Arcy Finn, and his replacement in September, 1987, by Morden, 48, a low-key former diplomat with a reputation for effectiveness.
Observers say that CSlS’s role in the Air-India affair was also a factor in the establishment of the RCMP’s new security directorate. The six-month-old directorate, according to RCMP Commissioner Norman Inkster, is responsible for investigating security and terrorism when there is evidence of criminal activity. Publicly, at least, both the RCMP and CSIS deny that the two agencies will stray into each other’s areas of responsibility. And Inkster noted that a CSIS liaison official, based at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa, will be able to monitor the force’s activities. Said Inkster: “The CSIS person who works with us has complete access to all the information that we gather, and he will decide whether or not it is of interest to CSIS." For his part, Morden acknowledged that “there were a lot of rocky periods in the beginning,” between the two forces. But, he told Maclean’s, “I have had strong support from the RCMP.”
Finn’s departure and his replacement by Morden signalled other changes in the agency. A countersubversion branch—criticized for targetting ordinary Canadians with only mildly dissenting political views—was scrapped. The agency has recruited more civilians—especially women and francophones—and reduced the number of CSlS’s estimated 2,000 employees who are alumni of the old RCMP Security Service to about 49 per cent from 80 per cent. At the same time, notes Morden, the government has substantially increased CSlS’s funding. “When I arrived here, we were severely underfunded,” he said. “We were being asked to do a job without the proper tools of the trade.” According to the government’s own figures, the CSIS budget for the 1989-1990 fiscal year is $158 million, compared with $116 million in 1985-1986. But Morden told Maclean’s that, in each of the past two years, the federal Cabinet has also approved additional secret cash infusions for unspecified “special projects.”
Still, some observers complain that the agency still has too much power to snoop into the lives of law-abiding Canadians. As the law stands, said Alan Borovoy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, CSIS can open an individual’s mail, tap his phone and search his house if it suspects him of what are called “activities in support of acts of violence to achieve a political objective” in Canada or abroad. “In other words, we could be talking about someone raising money for the contras in Nicaragua,” said Borovoy, who lectures CSIS recruits about once a year on civil liberties. “There is no justification whatsoever for powers that broad.”
But his criticisms meet with little sympathy from Morden. He noted that the agency has destroyed more than 120,000 of the 500,000 files on individual Canadians that it inherited from the RCMP. “If I had my druthers, I would drop the whole damn bunch in an acid bath to get rid of them,” he added. “But, if I did that, my friends at the public archives would be over here with a lynch mob. The files have to be gone through bit by bit to see what is worth saving.”
Some observers maintain that CSIS actually needs a few additional powers—in certain clearly defined areas—as well as still more money, to do its job effectively. David Stafford, chairman of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies, for one, told Maclean’s that he agreed with the review committee’s recommendation that Ottawa should give Morden the right to issue warrants for searches and wiretaps in emergencies rather than oblige the agency to apply to a Federal Court judge to obtain a warrant. European intelligence experts interviewed by Maclean’s, meanwhile, criticized CSIS for sometimes misinterpreting the information that its agents gather and blamed the agency’s lack of expertise on inadequate funding. A lack of money has also meant that CSIS, as a junior partner in joint intelligence-gathering operations, often receives lower-grade information than participants with larger budgets. Noted one Scandinavian intelligence expert: “Canada frequently gets the short end of the stick in share arrangements.”
Perhaps the most controversial suggestion likely to surface during the five-year review is a recommendation that CSIS agents be allowed to spy on other governments. The law now permits the agency to collect information outside Canada only when it concerns direct threats to Canadian security. Said U of T’s Russell: “That sort of handcuff just looks silly.” As a hypothetical example, he said that Canada might wish in future to develop a source in the U.S. trade department in Washington—something that would now be prohibited.
Still, some observers appear to like CSIS the way it is. Britain’s Allason, for one, declared, “We regard CSIS as a model we should follow.” Allason had particular praise for the role of the review committee, which, he said, has managed to monitor CSIS’s activities with “no ill effects at all.” And, after almost two years on the job, Morden said that he hopes to convince the committee of MPs that the legislation that governs CSIS needs no major changes. Said the director: “The system works, and it has a lot of checks and balances.” And certainly, at least in terms of diminished controversy, the machinery appears to be functioning more smoothly than it has in the past.
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