Canadians should be “spooked” by the enhanced powers spies are going to get, says a national security expert.
Agents of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service will not just be capable of eavesdropping and opening other people’s mail, according to Reg Whitaker.
The Vancouver Island-based academic and author of The End of Privacy: How Total Surveillance is Becoming a Reality said they’ll be able to do pretty much everything, short of murder, torture, sexual assault, and obstruction of justice.
That’s care of Bill C-51, the federal Liberal party-backed anti-terrorism bill introduced by the Conservatives in Parliament.
“The way that legislation is drawn up, anything,” Whitaker told the Straight in a phone interview. “I mean, it’s open ended. It’s a blank cheque.”
A former York University professor, Whitaker is reminded of the RCMP’s former Security Service Directorate that was disbanded and replaced with CSIS.
The RCMP unit’s activities, which included burning a barn owned by the family of a Quebec separatist, became the subject of an investigation known as the McDonald Commission.
The commission recommended the creation of a separate intelligence collection body, and CSIS was born in 1984.
“There were all of those elements that were put in place to make sure that in fact that CSIS was not going to do what the old RCMP security service had done, which is run around lawlessly and breaking the law, violating people’s rights and so on in secret, and without any kind of external oversight,” Whitaker recalled.
“And now [with Bill C-51] they want to go back to that,” he added.
Currently an adjunct political science professor at UVic, Whitaker was one of 100 Canadian professors of law and related disciplines that signed an open letter outlining to members of Parliament several concerns about the legislation.
In the phone interview, Whitaker expounded on one of the points raised in the letter, which is judicial oversight over some of the activities of CSIS.
Under the current set-up, CSIS has to apply for a warrant before a judge prior to undertaking such things like electronic surveillance, covert searches, and opening people’s mail.
“The judicial warrants that are now in place for intrusive surveillance do constitute a form of judicial review,” Whitaker noted.
He even recalled that during the early years of CSIS, its director at that time resigned after it was revealed that an application for a wiretap was based on falsified information.
After that, CSIS put in place a series of elaborate steps before an application actually goes before a judge, according to him.
“What they’re talking about now is something entirely different,” Whitaker said.
“And in fact, they’re turning that on its head because what they’re saying is not that a judge is there to make sure that what CSIS does is lawful,” Whitaker continued. “In fact, they’re saying that the judge can give a blank cheque to CSIS to break the law and violate Charter rights and do whatever they consider, you know, that they would want to do in order to achieve their purpose.”
“It’s kind of like they’re giving them a get-out-of-jail free card in advance,” Whitaker added.
According to Whitaker, the bill will “turn the judiciary from being the arbiter of what the state can do and what it can’t do…into being enablers of law breaking and Charter violations, which is just unbelievable”.
He granted that it could be that federal judges faced with this are going to say, ‘No, we can’t, we will not do this’.
“Now somewhere along the line, we’re going to have to have a court challenge about the constitutionality of the whole thing,” Whitaker said.
Meanwhile, the bill is making its way through Parliament. And according to Whitaker, Canadians should feel one thing: “Spooked indeed.”