CSIS is back in the news, this time defending a policy of paying surprise visits to people at their places of employment. The particular case described in the current news item involves a woman who had previously been visited by agents at her home on three different occasions. At the end of the third visit, a scheduled visit, she informed them that she had nothing more to say.
Since CSIS has no law enforcement authority and thus no way to legally compel someone to talk to their agents without involving the police, you might have thought that would be the end of it. Instead they began calling her at work and then showed up there unannounced. This all happened in 2006 and the woman filed a complaint with SIRC. It's in that context that we've learned more about the practice.
There's a memo drafted in 2005 that formally outlines the policy of surprise workplace visits and describes them as "legitimate investigative strategy." Apparently the strategy is employed less frequently than it was at the time but there's no indication that the policy has been changed or updated.
Here's the public response from the intelligence agency to concerns about it:
CSIS personnel are trained and expected to be professional, courteous, respectful and discreet to the fullest extent possible, said Tahera Mufti, spokeswoman for the spy service.
"We talk to many Canadians, every day, in a variety of settings, and by far these conversations are generally very cordial and frankly benign."
In the context of other news in recent years, this isn't all that comforting.
Recall the case of Ayad Mejid, who launched a lawsuit against CSIS last May. The agency employed threats and blackmail in an effort to force Mejid to become an informant. When they pressured him into turning his laptop over to them, the computer subsequently turned up in the hands of law enforcement who charged him with possession of child pornography. The case was thrown out.
In October, Justice Jane Kelly ruled Mejid was threatened and intimidated into handing over his laptop to CSIS to prove he wasn't the online jihadist they suspected. Instead, the agency says it found images of child pornography -- evidence deemed inadmissible because it was obtained under the guise of national security, which constituted a "flagrant abuse" of his Charter rights.
I would add that the evidence might also have been found inadmissible because the chain of custody was broken.
This doesn't sound like it's necessarily an isolated incident. In 2010, in a diplomatic cable obtained and published by WikiLeaks, we learned that Jim Judd informed a US State Department official that his agency was "vigorously harrassing" known members of Hezbollah.
I recall wondering at the time how carefully CSIS might be defining the term "known members." I also wondered what "vigorously harrassing" had to do with intelligence gathering or how you'd go about it while staying within the limits of a civilian agency. Now I wonder how you'd go about it while remaining "professional, courteous, respectful and discreet to the fullest extent possible." Perhaps it involved surprise workplace visits. I suspect some employers would take a dim view of employees who had attracted that kind of attention.
Recall that CSIS was created in the first place at the recommendation of the McDonald Commission. Since the RCMP had shown such a tendency to abuse its authority in the course of its national security investigations, the idea was to place the national security intelligence gathering function in the hands of a separate, civilian agency in the hopes that the law and due process would get more respect. I wonder if Justice McDonald would be pleased at the way things have worked out.
On Friday I suggested that Vic Toews had rendered the more recent O'Connor and Iacobucci commissions irrelevant. He has authorized CSIS both to trade in information obtained from torture and to supply information to regimes that practice torture. In fact I think we should go all the way back to 1981, when the McDonald Commission reported, and start over.