With resources at Canada’s spy agency already stretched, it’s possible the Liberals’ proposed anti-terror legislation will make it harder for spies to analyze potential terror threats, said former CSIS director Ward Elcock.
“Overall, the sum of the legislation is ultimately, I think, going to add hugely to the workload of organizations like [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service],” he said in an interview.
“It’s all onerous, and it required people to do the work. And when you have people doing that work, they’re not out on the street or working to stop a terror threat.”
Much of that work, Elcock said, will come from the proposed expert body, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency.
That agency is intended to keep an eye on intelligence services across government and to have a role in reviewing the spy service’s threat reduction measures.
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The Liberals didn’t take away one of the most controversial aspects of the previous Conservative government’s anti-terror bill – allowing the federal spy agency the explicit authority to disrupt terror threats, not just collect information about them.
What the proposed legislation, introduced Tuesday, does, however, is propose the Canadian Security Intelligence Service require a warrant before taking any action that could limit someone’s rights and freedoms under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Such a warrant, said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, will only be granted if a judge is convinced the steps CSIS is looking to take don’t breach charter rights.
But that’s not enough, opposition says.
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“The broad powers to CSIS, the threat-reduction powers, while we see a step has been taken back from the broad powers given by [the Conservative Bill] C-51, the fact that these powers remain on the books is extremely concerning,” said NDP public safety critic Matthew Dubé.
“Why? Because the very existence of CSIS is predicated on a separation of the powers between them and the RCMP. That’s to say law enforcement and intelligence gathering.”
The Liberals’ balancing act
Under the Conservative law, CSIS was free to tap a terror suspect’s phone, for example, or stop an individual from travelling with nothing more than ministerial approval.
The Liberal bill is about striking a balance between protecting Canadians’ security as well as their freedoms – something the previous government’s anti-terror bill failed to achieve – Goodale said.
That balance strikes at the heart of the controversy and protests that spread across the country when the previous Conservative government introduced in 2015 an anti-terror bill widely perceived to grant too many powers without enough checks to Canada’s spy agencies.
While the New Democrats, who were official Opposition at the time, voted against the Conservative’s bill, the Liberals supported the government – with an acknowledgement the bill was imperfect and a pledge to amend it if elected.
Twenty months after winning its majority government, the Liberals made their move.
‘A dangerous step back’
While the NDP remain cautiously optimistic, Conservative MPs are saying the step back on the authority of CSIS is “a dangerous step back.”
“The legislation allowed law enforcement to intercede when there was a threat to public safety in Canada from a commission of a terrorist attack,” said Conservative MP Erin O’Tool.
“So, now this bill is going to make it harder for police to satisfy the burden before they can detain a risk.”
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With files from The Canadian Press