Hamilton, ON, Canada
Tuesday May 2, 2017
(Canada’s intelligence agency, the ‘Canadian Security Intelligence Agency’ [CSIS] often indulges in behavior outside its mandate that most people find intimidating. The Canadian Parliament has set up a review committee—the ‘Security Intelligence Review Committee’ [SIRC]—that appears to be a toothless body unable to rein in the intelligence agency’s activities that go beyond its mandate, as the case of peace activist, Mr. Ken Stone shows. Read on…)
Canada’s Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) has released its report on Ken Stone’s complaint against the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). In January 2013, two CSIS agents paid an unannounced visit to Mr. Stone’s home and sought to question him about an op-ed published in the Hamilton Spectator that was critical of the Harper government's hostile stance against Iran.
Mr. Stone alleged that the visit was not warranted under the mandate of CSIS; that the visit caused him and his family considerable anxiety and distress; and that the visit had an intended purpose outside the mandate of CSIS, namely to intimidate him and his family from lawfully exercising their Charter rights of freedom of expression and association and to take part as Canadian citizens in public debate, including criticism, of the federal government’s policies.
Although his complaint was ultimately dismissed, Mr. Stone takes solace and satisfaction from the Committee’s findings, which include several strong criticisms of CSIS. In particular, SIRC found:
Mr. Stone believes it is important that SIRC confirmed in its report that speaking to CSIS is voluntary and that the Service often fails to adequately inform people of this when it contacts them: “CSIS does not explain to individuals directly that interviews are voluntary. They only go so far as asking them if they would like to talk to them and apparently this is to be taken as a message that the interview is voluntary and they cannot compel statements. They do not explain directly that it is voluntary.”
While Mr. Stone happened to be aware of his rights when CSIS agents arrived on his doorstep (thanks to a publication by the Peoples’ Commission Network entitled “If CSIS Comes Knocking”), the Review Committee noted that not everyone knows their rights, and CSIS agents do not adequately inform members of the public that such interviews are voluntary. SIRC recommended that CSIS should take this into account and clearly obtain informed and voluntary consent to speak with Canadians. (Significantly, SIRC noted that this is an issue that the Review Committee has previously raised with the Service, with no apparent impact on CSIS practices.) [see paras 78-81, SIRC decision attached].
Mr. Stone feels that his efforts in pursuing this complaint over the past four years have been worthwhile on this point alone, as the many Canadians who have followed the progress of his complaint (and supported him along the way) have learned, and can now be reassured, that if CSIS comes knocking on their doors, they do not have to speak with its agents. Based on his own experience, Mr. Stone suggests it is not in their interests to engage with CSIS at all.
Aside from failing to adequately inform the public that its interviews are voluntary, SIRC’s review revealed several troubling concerns with respect to CSIS practices and procedures. Mr. Stone says these issues call into question the ability and competence of the Service to conduct even the most basic intelligence work, and worries that these shocking failures could threaten both national security as well as the privacy of Canadians.
First, SIRC found that “Victoria”, one of the two agents who knocked on Mr. Stone’s door in January 2013, had failed to take any notes of her meeting with Mr. Stone whatsoever – a “problematic” failure contrary to the most basic requirements of CSIS policy. Even more troubling, the SIRC review revealed that CSIS had lost the interview notes taken by “Joanne,” the other agent who visited Mr. Stone’s home [see paras 85-92]. Mr. Stone is deeply troubled by the potential breach of privacy this implies, as the CSIS agent’s notes likely contained personally identifiable information about him including his name, address, phone number, and perhaps also details, questions, or allegations about his personal relationships or political beliefs, and the CSIS agent’s own impressions of her encounter with Mr. Stone and his family.
SIRC’s report gives no indication that CSIS made any efforts to find out what happened to the notes or how they were lost – and Mr. Stone was never notified of the loss of his personal information and potential breach of privacy. Mr. Stone said, “I’m left to wonder what happened to all this information about me – for all I know, “Joanne’s” notes might have been left on the seat of a rental car or at a table in a coffee shop, and someone in the community might have found them and read everything CSIS has to say about me.”
Mr. Stone and his family are deeply troubled by CSIS’s sloppy and troubling handling of this sensitive information, and insist that the matter of the investigator’s lost records ought to be investigated by CSIS, SIRC, and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. Mr. Stone finds these lapses inexcusable and a sad reflection on the competence of CSIS, an organization for which Canadian taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually, but which seems plagued by ongoing failures in such basic matters as taking and keeping track of notes pertaining to its investigations.
Perhaps most troubling of all the findings in the report, SIRC concluded that Tom Venner, the Assistant Director of CSIS, had “misrepresented” the Service’s internal investigation of Mr. Stone’s complaint. In a letter sent 11 months after the initial complaint, Mr. Venner assured Mr. Stone that CSIS had made “appropriate internal inquiries” into his concerns and concluded that “CSIS officials acted professionally and entirely within the legislated mandate of the Service.”
But SIRC’s review revealed that CSIS didn’t even speak to the agents who showed up at Mr. Stone’s door before writing this letter and dismissing his complaint. SIRC member Gene McLean found “there is no evidence before me that any relevant internal inquiries were made in order to meaningfully respond to the Complainant’s letter of complaint” [see paras 93-96]. Mr. Stone emphasizes that such misrepresentations by CSIS reveal the Service’s high-handed and dismissive attitude towards Canadians, and highlights the need for greater and more effective oversight of our security intelligence service.
Mr. Stone is also exasperated that the process of dealing with his complaint took nearly four years, and that SIRC’s recommendations on his complaint have no teeth. Under the current legislation, SIRC cannot compel CSIS to do anything. Canadians need more robust review and oversight of CSIS than part-time, politically-appointed SIRC members can provide: they deserve a timely, transparent, user-friendly complaint process that is accessible without the need for counsel. (Mr. Stone was represented in this case by Bijon Roy of Ottawa human rights law firm Champ & Associates.)
(Ken Stone is a long-time peace activist and member of the Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War).