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How Come CSIS 'Can Neither Confirm Nor Deny' Spying On Me?

03/03/2015 05:51 EST | Updated 05/03/2015 05:59 EDT

When I asked the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) whether it has files on me or DeSmog Canada, I got a response that's been used as a non-answer by government spokespeople and celebrity publicists for 40-plus years: We can "neither confirm nor deny" the records exist.

The intelligence body doesn't have to disclose such information because it's exempt from Canada's Access to Information legislation since it relates to "the detecting, preventing or suppressing subversive or hostile activities."

Hmph. Some part of me was expecting them to simply say "no." While non-denial denial responses like this are pretty par for the course when dealing with intelligence services -- the phrase was first conjured up during a clandestine CIA submarine operation in the 1970s -- it's disconcerting in light of the federal government's proposed anti-terrorism bill C-51, which would increase the powers of CSIS and its role in government-sponsored spying.

As others have pointed out, bill C-51 will allow dangerously strong measures to be taken against even perceived terror threats or individuals that pose a threat to Canada's critical infrastructure, such as pipelines, or the nation's financial security.

The language in bill C-51 has been roundly criticized for being so broad that it endangers the democratic rights of Canadian citizens and their ability to engage in legitimate dissent. Under the new legislation, CSIS could foreseeably monitor the activities of ordinary Canadians participating in community organizing, climate activism, blockades, strikes or pipeline protests.

As a recently leaked RCMP intelligence report highlights, environmental and First Nation groups are already targeted for surveillance in Canada and are being characterized (some say hyperbolically) as "violent anti-petroleum extremists."

As an editor at a news outlet that routinely reports on energy and environment issues directly related to "critical infrastructure," I thought it sensible to submit two requests to CSIS through the Access to Information and Privacy Act to see if any records came back.

For the record, I have no particular reason to think CSIS is monitoring either me or DeSmog Canada. To be sure, they have no legitimate reason to. But I find the inability to know whether we've been swept up in the spy agency's wide net concerning, as many other Canadians likely would.

Unfortunately, when it comes to CSIS, Canadians can expect very little transparency, a cause for additional concern when you recall Harper eliminated the position of the CSIS watchdog in 2012. The only overview of CSIS is handled by the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), a body comprised of part-time appointees with limited resources that assess CSIS operations after-the-fact.

DeSmog Canada's CSIS Privacy Request for Editor Carol Linnitt by DeSmog Canada

DeSmog Canada's CSIS Access to Information Request by DeSmog Canada

I reached out to Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), to see what he makes of these responses from CSIS.

"It certainly looks like the way the law is being interpreted there really aren't any 'citizens above suspicion,'" Gogolek said. "Or at least CSIS apparently won't confirm or deny" if such citizens exist.

Gogolek said it's fair CSIS wouldn't want to release information relevant to an ongoing investigation through the Access to Information process, but added, "likewise they shouldn't use this as a blanket excuse to refuse to release information."

Access to Information Act Gutted Under Harper

Reg Whitaker, distinguished research professor emeritus at York University and adjunct professor of political science at the University of Victoria, is a national security expert who has written several books on the topic including The End of Privacy: How Total Surveillance is Becoming a Reality.

Whitaker said when it comes to transparency, the Harper government has successfully gutted the Access to Information and Privacy Act over the last several years.

"Their idea is: you let out as little as possible, you make it as difficult and you make it as expensive as you can to make it difficult to use the Act in the first place," Whitaker said.

"That's not necessarily related to CSIS or the RCMP or surveillance of ongoing movements," he conceded. "There's just a general tendency that they are trying to stop up the flow of information about what they're doing generally across the board."

But when it comes to CSIS, Whitaker said, "there's this extra sensitivity, obviously."

As the Harper government looks to expand the power of CSIS under the name of "counter-terrorism," Whitaker said, "we know they are focusing on activist groups and certainly anti-pipeline groups, or more generally groups focused on resource issues and mega projects that have the highest priority in this government."

"They will always claim that they're only focusing on the potential for violence, therefore it falls into the category of terrorism. But there's no way they can carry on the surveillance of potential violent activity of these groups without spying on these groups."

RCMP and CSIS Risk Losing Social Licence

And that's a problem, Whitaker said, arguing the outcome of a surveillance campaign like this will be growing social mistrust.

"The implications are not going to be good for social licence," he said. "It's a pretty fuzzy concept, but it's a phrase that is used a lot these days."

Whitaker said it is clear pipeline proponents Enbridge and Kinder Morgan have lost their social licence with individuals worried about the environment, First Nations and "generally the population of British Columbia feeling they're having these juggernauts rammed down their throats."

In much the same way, the RCMP and CSIS risk the social licence they require to adequately address real security threats.

"With CSIS and the RCMP in fighting terrorism, it's very important, I think, that they -- and in their more lucid moments they'd agree, I'm sure -- that they have social licence."

But with the looming implications of Bill C-51 both CSIS and the RCMP put their social licence at risk.

"What they're in danger of doing now as bill C-51 goes through and their powers get greatly expanded and the definition of what they're looking at is being expanded so broadly, well beyond terrorism in fact...they are going to seriously lose that social licence with a much larger proportion of the Canadian population."

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