OTTAWA - Canada's spy agency could soon have the power to derail terrorist plots — not just gather and analyze information about them — as the government moves to confront radical threats with an array of new legal tools.
Legislation tabled Friday would allow the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to thwart a suspected extremist's travel plans, disrupt bank transactions and covertly meddle with jihadist websites.
The plan to boost the spy service's ability to counter terrorism flows from a review of fatal attacks on two Canadian soldiers last October — incidents the government believes were fuelled by Islamic extremism.
The Conservatives say the new powers are needed to help keep Canadians safe in an increasingly dangerous world.
Initial reaction from opposition parties was cautious and muted. Privacy advocates and civil libertarians expressed fears about trampled rights and inadequate oversight.
The proposed expansion of CSIS powers also conjured memories of past misdeeds — such as burning a barn to prevent a meeting of radicals — by the old RCMP security service, the scandal-plagued outfit from whose ashes CSIS rose three decades ago.
As expected, the bill would also make it easier for police to obtain a peace bond to restrict the movements of a suspect and it extends the period for preventative arrest and detention.
In addition, the legislation would expand the no-fly regime to cover those travelling by air to take part in terrorist activities, whereas currently there must be an immediate risk to the plane.
The bill proposes giving the RCMP power to seek a judge's order to remove terrorist propaganda from the Internet. It would also create a new criminal offence of encouraging someone to carry out a terrorist attack.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a gathering in Richmond Hill, Ont., the Conservative government is prepared to both condemn and confront extremism.
"Jihadist terrorism is not a future possibility, it is a present reality," Harper said.
"It seeks to harm us here in Canada, in our cities and in our neighbourhoods through horrific acts."
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Existing law requires a fear that someone "will commit" terrorism before police can obtain a peace bond — a tool that can mean jail unless a suspect abides by strict conditions, for instance that they surrender their passport and regularly report to police.
The new, lower threshold would be reasonable grounds to fear a person "may commit" a terrorism offence.
Current anti-terrorism law allows police to arrest someone without a warrant and hold them for up to three days before a hearing. Under the bill, the maximum period would be seven days.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said there must be a balance between security and civil liberties. "We are capable of doing both at the same time and we'll make sure that this bill ensures that and we'll ask the appropriate questions."
Under existing law, CSIS may interview someone with the sole aim of collecting information, not dissuading that person from, for example, travelling to Syria to join militants.
With its new mandate, CSIS would need "reasonable grounds to believe" there was a security threat before taking measures to disrupt it. The spy agency would require a court warrant whenever proposed disruption measures violate the charter of rights or otherwise breach Canadian law.
Threat disruption warrants would be limited to 120 days, with the possibility of limited renewal if a judge agreed.
The new powers would allow CSIS to engage in a joint operation with a foreign partner to divert a shipment of dangerous chemicals, keeping it out of extremist hands.
CSIS could also ask the overseeing court to issue an "assistance order" that would, for instance, require a landlord to allow the spy agency to plant listening devices in a tenant's apartment. Currently CSIS cannot force a building owner to comply with such a warrant.
In addition, the spy agency could provide online "counter-messaging" or even "disrupt radical websites and Twitter accounts" to protect impressionable young Canadians, says a federal background document.
The Security Intelligence Review Committee, which keeps an eye on CSIS, would report annually on threat disruption warrants.
The government is giving CSIS more powers less than three years after abolishing another watchdog — the inspector general's office — meant to be the minister's early-warning system on CSIS, noted Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa law professor.
"The combination of more power — and explicitly disruptive power — but less oversight for CSIS is ultra-dangerous."
Other proposed measures would:
— Allow for more information-sharing when the material — such as passport or immigration information — is relevant to an agency's national security mandate;
— Give the government more power to object to disclosure of classified information in immigration proceedings.
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