Spies spy. That is why governments employ them. That is why organizations like the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) exist. Their job is to gather information — to spy on people.
This may seem self-evident. But it is important context for the latest brouhaha involving CSIS — the release this week of thousands of pages of documents related to the service’s monitoring of environmental groups opposed to the now defunct Northern Gateway oil pipeline.
Most of those pages are so heavily censored as to be useless. No surprise there. That’s the other thing about spies: they are notoriously secretive. In that sense, it was quite an accomplishment for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which published the redacted documents online Monday, to reveal anything.
Until now, the association and the seven environmental groups it represents have been forbidden by law from saying anything about the three-year, in camera inquiry at the heart of this matter. They couldn’t even report what they had told the inquiry. It was just too secret, too spyworthy.
But now, thanks to an appeal to the Federal Court, some of the facts of this odd case are beginning to dribble out. The story begins with the ultimately unsuccessful attempt by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper to get a pipeline built from the Alberta oilsands to British Columbia’s northern Pacific coast.
Environmental groups that opposed this Northern Gateway pipeline were a particular bête noir of the Harper government. It labelled them foreign agitators. In the words of then natural resources minister Joe Oliver, they were radicals financed by “billionaire socialists from the United States.”
In short, these groups were prime targets for the security services. And in November 2013, an article in the Vancouver Observer based on Freedom-of-Information requests appeared to confirm what many had already come to suspect: Under the Harperites, CSIS was vigorously spying on anti-pipeline groups.
On the basis of that article, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association filed a formal complaint to the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), the body overseeing CSIS. The association charged that CSIS had broken the law by targeting legitimate, peaceful groups and by sharing this information with private oil companies.
The subsequent inquiry by SIRC member Yves Fortier took three years. In the end, Fortier concluded that CSIS had indeed amassed information on peaceful, anti-pipeline groups. But he said it had done so only by accident when it was pursuing its legitimate mandate to monitor others that it regarded as bad actors.
Fortier also concluded that while CSIS did conduct private security briefings for the oil companies, there was no evidence that it had passed on to them any information about the environmental groups it happened to be monitoring.
In sum, Fortier concluded that everything was hunky-dory. It’s this conclusion that the civil liberties association is challenging at the Federal Court. There are two lessons that can be drawn from this tale.
First, if you’re taking on the established order, expect CSIS to show up. Technically, the service is not supposed to target legitimate, peaceful groups. But as Fortier ruled, it can and does collect ancillary information on such organizations when it is pursuing its central anti-terrorist mandate.
For an agency charged with protecting national security, too much information is always better than too little. The service found this out the hard way after it famously failed to prevent the worst terrorist outrage in Canadian history, the Air India bombing of 1985.
Second, what politicians say does matter. When Oliver ranted about foreign agitators infiltrating the Canadian environmental movement, CSIS heard him loud and clear.
Alberta’s United Conservative Premier Jason Kenney is on the same rant today. His message is equally clear. Depending on who wins the October federal election, it could carry some weight in Ottawa.