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Daily News Analysis

Who’s watching CSIS? Not Ottawa — and not the media

Andrew Mitrovica

As the Harper government pushes ahead with imposing the draconian Bill C-51 on Canadians that would grant even more powers to the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) without any proper oversight, Investigative reporter Andrew Mitrovica draws attention to the past misdeeds of the spy agency whose record is less than sterling.

Wednesday March 18, 2015, 16:49 DST

(Courtesy: ipolitics)

Pssst. Here’s a secret. Ages ago, when I was a Globe and Mail investigative reporter, brass at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service tried to get me fired. I’d caused a lot of trouble for CSIS by writing lots of front-page stories exposing corruption, incompetence, nepotism, law-breaking, laziness and a near-mutiny inside the intelligence service. To plug the service-rattling leaks, then-CSIS director Ward Elcock launched what amounted to a service-wide witch hunt to ferret out my sources. (He turned up nothing.) Elcock was particularly incensed after Michel Simard, a 35-year veteran of the RCMP Security Service and CSIS, told me that CSIS was a “rat hole”. Simard headed a large group of intelligence officers known as the X-MP Fund who, incredibly, were suing Elcock and CSIS for back pay and benefits they were promised when they left the RCMP to join the new civilian agency. Simard was put on indefinite administrative leave as payback, while Elcock’s right-hand man Jim Corcoran issued a directive to all CSIS staff not to speak to me if I contacted them at work or at home about stories I was working on. The muzzle order was promptly leaked to me. (Corcoran broke his own ban by delivering an on-the-record diatribe after I called him at home for comment.) Elcock and company were so upset by my prying into their secret work that they penned unflattering letters to my editors, while their frazzled PR guy tried to engineer a letter-writing campaign to, in effect, get me turfed.

The Globe, to its credit, rebuffed the pressure. Eventually, I wrote an exposé about CSIS called Covert Entry — one of only two books penned by Canadian journalists (the other is by my friend, Richard Cleroux) about the intelligence service’s inner workings. In much of my reporting on CSIS since the late 1990s, I’ve been raising the alarm about how the spy service routinely abuses its extraordinary powers. I wasn’t alone, of course. Lawyers Paul Copeland and Clayton Ruby, academics like Reg Whitaker, Maureen Webb, Stuart Farson, Steven Hewitt and Sharryn Aiken, and journalists like Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill, freelance writer Mathhew Behrens and Now magazine senior news editor Enzo DiMatteo, have tried for years to warn Canadians about the absence of true oversight for this largely unaccountable intelligence agency.

I often felt I was whistling in the wind. I watched with dismay as a string of Liberal and Conservative governments gave CSIS more money, people and powers — while the already limp review bodies charged, on paper, with keeping an eye on our spies have been abolished, or politicized and neutered into irrelevance. Recall that in 2012 Stephen Harper shuttered the office of the Inspector General — ostensibly the Public Safety minister’s eyes and ears inside CSIS — largely because IGs like David Peel, Maurice Archdeacon and Eva Plunkett were doing too good a job. The spymasters whined and Harper happily obliged them. Look, I don’t know what happened in Istanbul. I do know Canadian media aren’t going to get at the truth by talking to the usual suspects it trots out every time something intriguing happens in the world of espionage.

Harper also turned the inept Security Intelligence Review Committee into an international punchline. SIRC has a miniscule budget and woefully inexperienced and transient staff. Its last two chairs, Chuck Strahl and Arthur Porter — both Harper appointees — resigned in disgrace. Porter is allegedly a crook on the lam, while Strahl, an ex-Tory cabinet minister and lobbyist, got ensnared in a conflict of interest scandal.

Harper tapped former Reform MP Deborah Grey to run SIRC — thus confirming the job’s status as a landing pad for superannuated hacks. It was a curious choice since, while she was in Opposition, Grey loudly agreed with Preston Manning when he denounced SIRC as — you guessed it — a landing pad for superannuated hacks. Despite this, the prime minister and his alarmist Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney keep claiming SIRC is more than capable of holding CSIS in check. Anyone who believes them is living in a fact-free universe.

Facts, as we know, have never been Harper’s cup of tea. Like most demagogues, he enshrines his hysteria and fear into laws … draconian laws like Bill C-51, which essentially makes it crime to think, write or talk about terrorism and gives CSIS carte blanche to do virtually whatever it wants to do, to whomever, when and wherever it wants to do it. C-51 is a bad, dangerous law, drafted for short-term political purposes and being shoved pell-mell through the Parliamentary process by a government without scruples. And we can already see how this story plays out …

Turkish media reported last week that authorities had detained a man — who apparently has claimed he’s working for CSIS in exchange for citizenship — in connection with efforts to help three teenage British girls join Islamic State. The story is plausible: CSIS officers often dangle the promise of citizenship or the threat of deportation to secure the ‘co-operation’ of vulnerable people. So far, Ottawa’s tepid statements on this matter read like classic non-denial denials, leading many to conclude that CSIS may have gotten caught — again — up to its old tricks. Look, I don’t know what happened in Istanbul. I do know Canadian media aren’t going to get at the truth by talking to the usual suspects it trots out every time something intriguing happens in the world of espionage.

But there they were again last week, popping up on radio, TV, websites and newspapers like whack-a-mole — guys like that slick ex-CSIS officer, Ray Boisvert, who cautions everyone not to jump to conclusions while he jumps to unsubstantiated conclusions that, predictably, provide cover for CSIS. Then there’s University of Ottawa professor Wesley Wark, who, just like CSIS, gathers most of his “intelligence” from “open sources” — that is to say, by reading newspapers and watching TV. Clearly, Wark hasn’t got a clue about what’s happening in Turkey but he’s loath to admit it, so he spouts flimsy conjecture and reporters nod approvingly.

Bereft of in-the-know sources, the National Post’s so-called “national security reporter” even dug up Reid Morden from obscurity for comment. Reality check: Morden — who once dismissed CSIS as the “Keystone Kops” of the spy trade — was appointed the agency’s director more than 25 years ago. You might as well be asking the mailman to tell you what’s going on in Turkey. I haven’t been the “spy guy” at a media outlet for years. When I was, however, I understood that I had to convince the grunts inside CSIS to talk to me. Many of them did. More often than not they shared small or big pieces of the truth that I put together like a jigsaw puzzle. That kind of work takes patience, perseverance and ingenuity. My advice to reporters: Ditch the ubiquitous talking heads and find the people who know — for the truth’s sake.

Andrew Mitrovica is a writer and journalism instructor. For much of his career, Andrew was an investigative reporter for a variety of news organizations and publications including the CBC’s fifth estate, CTV’s W5, CTV National News — where he was the network’s chief investigative producer — the Walrus magazine and the Globe and Mail, where he was a member of the newspaper’s investigative unit. During the course of his 23-year career, Andrew has won numerous national and international awards for his investigative work.


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