Michel Coulombe, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told a Commons committee today that Canada's spy agency has used new disruption powers it was granted when Bill C-51 became law this past summer.
This marks the first time CSIS has publicly acknowledged the use of its new powers under the Anti-terrorism Act to disrupt suspected plots rather than just relay information about those plots to the federal government and the RCMP.
CSIS director Michel Coulombe is shawon in March, 2015. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
As an intelligence agency, CSIS does not have powers to enforce the law. Its role has been to relay intelligence to other branches of government. That changed when Bill C-51 became law, giving the spy agency power to actively interfere with suspected terrorists if it has reasonable grounds to think a security threat exists.
The disruption powers allow CSIS to interfere with, telephone calls, travel plans and bank or financial transactions. The agency can also disrupt radical websites and Twitter accounts of groups or people inside and outside of Canada.
This provision in the act has garnered criticism from the outset, because there is no clear definition of what "disrupt" means in the legislation, causing some to be concerned the power would be abused by police and intelligence services.
The Anti-Terrorism Act became law in June 2015. The new law was opposed by the NDP but supported by the Liberals.
Under the law it is a criminal offence to encourage someone to carry out a terror attack even if the attack never happens.
Police were also given the power to arrest suspects without a warrant by widening the definition of whom police can arrest on suspicion.
If a person is arrested over fears related to national security their information can be shared with more arms of government than previously permitted.
The Liberals have vowed to overhaul the law's more troubling elements, including provisions that allow CSIS to disrupt terror plots, if the tactics used breach the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said he could not provide any statistics as to how many times or how the power to disrupt had been used by CSIS, but affirmed the federal government's commitment to provide oversight for the law.
"We are proposing to strengthen the review process very substantially by a parliamentary committee as well as various other techniques," Goodale said.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair criticized the Liberals for promising to make changes to the Anti-Terrorism Act during the election campaign but not following up.
"We know that there are problems with C-51, we voted against it," Mulcair said. "We wanted to withdraw that law. We thought it was a bad law for Canadians' freedoms."