08/01/2011 12:11 EDT | Updated 10/01/2011 05:12 EDT

CSIS at odds with watchdog over controversial tactic for disrupting terror plots

OTTAWA - Canada's spy agency flatly denies it practises a controversial anti-terrorism tactic that got it a firm knuckle-rapping from a federal watchdog.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service's insistence that it does not employ the technique known as disruption is squarely at odds with the findings of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which keeps an eye on CSIS.

Newly declassified records only underscore the differences.

The committee recommended CSIS seek ministerial guidance on disruption — that is, letting suspected terrorists or spies know they are under investigation with the aim — or unintentional side-effect — of prompting them to drop their plans.

It also called on the spy service to develop formal guidelines regarding its use of the tactic.

The review committee, which reports to Parliament, says the spy service "expressly set out to disrupt" a threat to Canada and did not inform the public safety minister, the cabinet member responsible for CSIS, it was doing so.

The committee was concerned because disruption could overlap with the efforts of police. It also wasn't sure whether the technique fell under CSIS's mandate of advising the government about security threats.

In addition, it felt the public safety minister should know about CSIS's use of the tactic in some cases. And the committee pointed out there were no guidelines to help design, implement or prepare for the consequences of such activity.

When a summary of the review committee's report was issued last October, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews' office said it was reviewing the recommendations with interest. CSIS had little specific to say on the subject.

Nine months later, Michael Patton, a spokesman for Toews, says the minister is aware of the report and "has provided appropriate guidance."

However, CSIS spokeswoman Tahera Mufti denied CSIS even tries to disrupt threats.

"Our mandate is to investigate security threats to Canada, and it is possible that in some cases an investigation itself has the effect of defusing a threat," she said in an emailed response to questions.

"For example, an investigation might require us to interview someone who has been communicating with extremist groups overseas, whereupon that individual, having met with CSIS, will cease those communications.

"If a threat is defused or deterred as described above, that is an unintended effect of an investigation, not the intent of the investigation. CSIS does not practise 'disruption.'"

The review committee "is right to expect that CSIS be sensitive to these distinctions — and we are," she added.

"CSIS personnel — from front-line investigators to senior managers — have these conversations with each other every day, formally and informally, and (the review committee's) observations are always very helpful in this regard."

However, Mufti declined to say whether CSIS had sought ministerial guidance on disruption, or if it had developed formal guidelines.

A fuller version of the review committee's June 2010 report — recently obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act — makes it clear the watchdog's concerns were not just theoretical.

The heavily redacted report, which covers the period January 2006 through December 2008, says CSIS interviewed people possibly connected to — or with knowledge of — a looming security threat.

"Although the primary goal was to collect information from those with possible knowledge of the threat, the Service also hoped to prevent future threat-related activity.

"Because the date for the ... action was quickly approaching, the Service expressly set out to disrupt the threat environment."

In addition, says the review committee, although the minister was told of the brewing security issue on two occasions four months apart, "in neither case was it made clear that CSIS intended to disrupt the threat."

"The Committee believes that if CSIS has determined that it is necessary to disrupt threats to national security, then Government should be made aware of this."

The committee stressed that concern over the phenomenon of "mandate creep" was not new, recalling a notorious chapter in Canadian intelligence history.

It pointed out that the RCMP Security Service, the forerunner of CSIS, tried to derail targets by using countermeasures in the early 1970s.

These included disrupting separatist forces in Quebec by burning a barn to stop a meeting from taking place and pilfering membership lists from a Parti Quebecois office.

The review committee said CSIS guidelines on disruption should provide answers to important questions, including:

— what kinds of "proactive activities" are acceptable for the spy service to engage in?

— what level of CSIS management approves disruption?

— what training is needed for CSIS staff to perform activities designed to be coercive?