Tag Archives: CSE

Pre-crime arrest shows Trudeau Liberals intend to leave C-51 mostly intact

Image: A hand holds a cardboard sign reading “C-51 IS TERRORISM – REJECT FEAR”

For well over a year now, Justin Trudeau’s promise to “fix” the “problematic aspects” of Bill C-51 once his party formed government has been the source of considerable uncertainty. Just what exactly does he mean by “problematic”? Which parts will he keep, and which will he amend, and which will he discard? Neither the Prime Minister nor his Public Safety Minister, Ralph Goodale, have been particularly detailed in their public statements on the matter, although careful parsing of their interviews do glean some insights, at least about some things they intend to change.

The government’s focus so far has been on increased oversight of intelligence and security agencies, both by existing bodies and by a new committee of parliamentarians. (Although their major cuts to the budget of SIRC, the body which provides oversight to CSIS, raises serious questions about their commitment to robust oversight.) They’ve made vaguely reassuring noises about protecting “civil” protest and have promised to tidy up the bureaucratic Gordian Knot commonly known as the no-fly list.

But they’ve been silent about privacy concerns, and documents recently released in response to a Freedom of Information request begrudgingly acknowledged that Canadians’ private information has been shared by at least four agencies, one of which had its name completely redacted from the release. Given the responsiveness of CSE to Defence Minister Sarjit Hajjan’s demand that the signals intelligence agency stop sharing information with its foreign counterparts during the metadata scandal which erupted earlier this year, we have to presume that this inter-agency C51-approved info-sharing is happening with the Trudeau government’s blessing.

The government has been equally circumspect as to their plans for the controversially expansive new powers granted to spy agencies like CSIS. In fact, they’ve been frustratingly tight-lipped on the subject of how they have been using these new powers since they formed government last year, and are keeping their predecessors’ instructions to CSIS on how to use these powers top secret. This silence, as I’ve suggested, always seemed to indicate that they intended to leave these issues unaddressed.

And with the arrest of Kevin Omar Mohamed by the RCMP last week, the Liberal government has finally and conclusively tipped their hand – the security agencies’ new powers look to be here to say. Continue Reading

Massive cost of Nuttall & Korody sting raises serious questions about counter-terrorism funding

Image description: John Nuttall, with long stringy hair and unkempt beard, sits in the passenger seat of a car, his head turning towards his left. In the back seat is Amanda Korody, wearing a black headscarf and smoking a cigarette while gesturing emphatically with her left hand. (Image credit: RCMP surveillance)

Image description: John Nuttall, with long stringy hair and unkempt beard, sits in the passenger seat of a car, his head turning towards his left. In the back seat is Amanda Korody, wearing a black headscarf and smoking a cigarette while gesturing emphatically with her left hand. (Image credit: RCMP surveillance)

Back when The Alfalfafield was a brand-new little baby blog, my very first serious post focussed on a Toronto Star investigative report into the alleged underfunding of the RCMP.

The article relied almost entirely on internal RCMP documents asking the government for more money. The documents were provided to the Star by the Liberal Party’s then-finance critic Ralph Goodale, who got in a few good kicks at the Harper Conservatives in the piece. The Star attempted to make the case that the RCMP, faced with limited funds, was being forced to choose between pursuing dangerous terrorists and going after more conventional criminals.

At the time, I called bullshit, pointing to the ongoing trial of the so-called Canada Day bombers, John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, as evidence that the funds allocated by the Mounties for combatting terrorism were being poorly spent. Even then, it was clear that the pair of incompetent indigents couldn’t have orchestrated a bomb plot on their own if their very lives had depended on it, and that it was only the intervention of two hundred and forty RCMP officers that made the pressure-cooker plot possible.

Undercover Mounties steered Nuttall and Korody away from impossibly far-fetched schemes, pushed the idea of pressure cookers and a Canada Day detonation date, brought them to a Kelowna hotel for a weekend to teach them how to make C-4 plastic explosive, bought them groceries and cigarettes so they would be able to afford bomb-making materials on their meagre welfare benefits, and left John Nuttall with the impression that his life was in danger if he didn’t go through with the plot.

If Nuttall and Korody were the face of the menacing terror threat facing Canadians, if the threat their ilk posed was the reason that the RCMP was being “forced” to divert scarce resources away from investigations into gangs or white-collar financial crime, if their paranoid/delusional brand of homegrown extremism was the justification for major increases to the federal anti-terror budget, then all this fuss is just so much empty hype and noise.

The RCMP didn’t urgently need more money to combat terrorism; they just wanted more money. And rather than reflexively reaching for our wallets in response to their fear-mongering, we ought to take a good hard look at how reasonable this request actually is.

At that time, the public didn’t have any access to hard numbers on how much the Nuttall/Korody sting had cost. We still don’t have the full picture, but based on recently released figures on overtime pay for the operation, it looks to have been pretty darn expensive: Continue Reading

Fallacy Friday: Security agencies utterly lacking in credibility on security issues

Image description: One of those obnoxious "Keep calm and carry on"-style posters, reading "Keep calm and trust me - I'm an expert".

Image description: One of those obnoxious “Keep calm and carry on”-style posters, reading “Keep calm and trust me – I’m an expert”. (Image credit: Author)

The Ministers of Defence and Public Safety tout the “prominent” and “robust” roles that the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) will play in Canada’s retooled military operations in Iraq, but aren’t at liberty to reveal exactly what the two agencies will be doing.

Two former high-ranking national security officials pen an editorial urging the Trudeau government to retain and expand upon new powers granted to intelligence agencies by the controversial C-51, arguing that (unspecified) threats to Canada have “seldom been so high”.

In the wake of a pair of high-profile scandals at CSE and CSIS, officials reassure a worried public that the difficulties were the cause of “inadvertent” errors or the behaviour of a “rogue” lone (now-ex-)employee, and that when it comes to privacy concerns, people don’t really have anything to worry about.

How are we to assess these stories and others like them? The occasional dispatches we mere mortals receive from the lofty milieu of those with above-top-secret clearances are always glaringly incomplete, with key details replaced by an index finger coyly placed upon a smilingly tight lip. It’s often implied that if we just knew all the details, then of course we’d see things their way, but since for obvious reasons certain facts just can’t be revealed, we’ll just have to trust them.

But there’s a strong case to be made for doing the exact opposite – to treat each and every claim made by a national security official, a government minister, or a private-sector apologist for the surveillance apparatus with extreme skepticism or disbelief. Because of informational asymmetry and perverse incentives, the public has effectively no ability to objectively assess the claims of intelligence and security agencies, and no compelling reason to accept on faith alone that we aren’t being deceived in some way.  Continue Reading

CSE metadata scandal casts doubt on Parliament’s surveillance-oversight credibility

A protester holds a sign reading “Stop Watching All Of Us”. Below is a stylized eyeball, the pupil of which is a handprint held up in a “stop” gesture. (Image credit: Elvert Barnes/Flickr)

If you’re like most Canadians, you’ve never heard of the CSE.

CSIS? Sure, in a vague kind of way – they’re kind of like the Canadian CIA, right? (Not exactly.) But the Communications Security Establishment lacks the widespread recognition of its controversy-entangled American counterpart, the NSA.

Maybe you’ve heard of them? Or their most famous contractor? His leak of NSA documents got this country – briefly – talking about the CSE this time last year when it was revealed that the extremely secretive agency monitors tens of millions of downloads every day.

The CSE, like the NSA, engages in what’s known as “signals intelligence” – monitoring of phone calls and electronic communications. Unlike the NSA, which famously hoovers up whatever it can get its high-tech cybernetic paws on, regardless of the source, CSE faces some restrictions on its surveillance, the most significant of which is that it is not permitted to monitor the communications of Canadian citizens.

But it’s hard to exclude specific sources when you’re scooping up such massive amounts of information. In practice, CSE collects its intelligence pretty indiscriminately, and then it filters out, or “minimizes”, information pertaining to Canadian citizens.

Or at least that’s the idea. In practice, it turns out that CSE has not actually been doing such a good job at “minimizing” that information, and in fact shared it with Canada’s surveillance partners in four other countries for quite some time. Continue Reading

C-51 keeps getting worse the more we learn about it

This is the inaugural post in a new series: National Security Sundays. Each week, I’ll be doing a deep dive into issues related to Canada’s surveillance agencies, law enforcement, or armed forces. Today, we’re taking a look at a story that what hot this spring but which hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves lately, the 1984-esque surveillance law C-51.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think I’ve managed to pinpoint the lowest level to which the Conservative Party stooped in the recent election campaign in their desperate attempts to drum up enough fear and terror and anti-Muslim hatred to squeak back into office.

There were, I’ll concede, a lot of candidates for the Lowest Low, from their anti-niqab hysteria to their “barbaric practices hotline” to their cold bureaucratic indifference to the plight of refugees. But, for me at least, the Conservatives hit rock bottom on September 24, when they announced that they were laying charges under the recently-passed C-51 against a Canadian man, Farah Mohamed Shirdon, who left Canada in early 2014 to fight for the Islamic State.

Shirdon, charged in absentia, couldn’t have been prosecuted without the vital provisions of the government’s glorious Combating Terrorism Act, crowed a boastful Jason Kenney in a press release so self-congratulatory and hubristic it has to be read to be believed. One key quote:

The video of this individual burning and shooting his Canadian passport to express his violent hatred for Canada shocked many Canadians – and demonstrates how those who engage in terrorism betray the bond of loyalty and allegiance with Canada.

This one sentence has the whole Conservative Party reelection strategy, encapsulated perfectly. It uses loaded buzzwords designed to create indignation, fear, and hatred, says “Canada” and “Canadians” far too many times, conflates symbolic gestures with meaningful action, and baldly asserts the widespread prevalence of opinions which are in actuality much more marginal. It sets up a glowing ideal of Canadian patriotism and then demonizes and Others anybody who fails to live up to it, attempting to create a sense of solidarity among all “decent” folks. It’s truly a disgusting masterwork of divisive rhetoric.

But that’s not what’s most egregious about the charges laid against Shirdon. The truly outrageous aspect of all this is that Shirdon was almost certainly dead when the RCMP announced the charges. Continue Reading

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