Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and I'll begin by thanking you for inviting me to appear today. I'm delighted to be here as chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, along with Susan Pollak, our executive director. We have a number of our senior staff with us as observers, and in case we forget something, we have our director of research, Steve Bittle, and our senior legal counsel, Sylvie Roussel, as well as a number of our research analysts.
I would like to take the opportunity to go through a brief introduction about SIRC and its mandate and responsibilities. The last time representatives of SIRC appeared before this committee was in 2009. The membership has changed somewhat, so I think we'll take the opportunity to give an introductory view of SIRC, and then we'll be very happy to answer questions.
Let me say first that having served on SIRC for nearly nine years, during which time I have been in regular contact with many organizations with similar mandates, I'm confident that Canada's model is, and is recognized to be, one of the strongest review functions in the world. This is not to say that changes and improvements are not possible, but simply that we have in SIRC an effective tool for helping to ensure the accountability of Canada's security intelligence agency, CSIS.
As I'm sure you are aware, SIRC came into being at the same time that Canada created CSIS, its civilian security intelligence service. With the passage of the CSIS Act in 1984, Canada became one of the first democratic governments in the world to establish a detailed legal framework for the operation of its security service. It is equally significant that the CSIS Act created a framework to make CSIS accountable in exercising its powers, a framework that by and large has stood the test of time.
Specifically, the CSIS Act defines the mandate and limits of state power to conduct security intelligence. It also spells out how the service's work is to be monitored through a rigorous system of political and judicial controls, including two review bodies, each with a distinct mandate, to watch over the new agency.
I will not describe in detail the role of the inspector general of CSIS, but will simply say that it's an internal body that provides the Minister of Public Safety with a knowledgeable set of eyes and ears on CSIS operations. SIRC, on the other hand, is an external review mechanism that does not report to any minister, but directly to you, as parliamentarians, and through you, ultimately, to all Canadians. SIRC's role is relatively easy to describe, although somewhat complex to execute. The committee has two basic functions: first, to conduct reviews into CSIS operations; and second, to investigate complaints against CSIS. SIRC has, in law, the absolute authority to examine all of the service's operational activities and has full access to all of its files, no matter how highly classified that information may be, the sole exception, of course, being cabinet confidences.
Our reviews are done by assessing the service's past activities and operations against four instruments that together form the legislative and policy framework for the service. These are, first, the CSIS Act; second, ministerial direction; third, national requirements for security intelligence; and finally, CSIS's own operational policies.
In each of its reviews, the committee examines certain fundamental questions, such as: Did CSIS have reasonable grounds to suspect a threat to the security of Canada? Was the level of investigation proportionate to the seriousness of the threat? Did exchanges of information between CSIS and domestic and foreign partners respect the agreements and caveats that govern information-sharing? And finally, did the service's investigation respect the rights of the individuals who were involved in lawful activities, such as protest or dissent?
Normally, our reviews take several months to complete and involve SIRC staff examining thousands of pages of documents, as well as having numerous discussions with CSIS personnel. Once a review is completed, copies are sent to the director of CSIS and to the inspector general; in some special cases, we send our reviews directly to the Minister of Public Safety. Declassified summaries, with any national security and privacy concerns removed, are also included in SIRC's annual report to Parliament.
Although SIRC's annual report is our main communications vehicle for informing Parliament and the public about our work, SIRC does carry on a modest communications program as well. We respond to media inquiries and participate in domestic and international symposia with relevance to our work. We also address seminars at Canadian universities to explain SIRC's role to students pursuing studies in this or other related areas. SIRC's website is another useful source of information for the public. There, you can find all of SIRC's annual reports, speeches and presentations, backgrounders and other publications, as well as descriptions of who we are and what we do.
Moving now to the subject of complaints, you are no doubt aware that SIRC investigates complaints about CSIS brought by individuals or groups. These complaints fall into one of four categories. They can be about any act or thing done by the service; denials of security clearances to federal government employees and contractors; referrals from the Canadian Human Rights Commission in cases where the complaint relates to the security of Canada; and, very infrequently, ministers' reports in respect of the Citizenship Act.
When SIRC accepts jurisdiction, the complaint is investigated through a quasi-judicial hearing presided over by a committee member, whose role is similar to that of a judge. At the conclusion of the investigation, the member issues a decision containing findings and recommendations to the minister, the director of CSIS, and, in cases concerning security clearance, the deputy head of the government department involved. We also provide a declassified report on our investigation to the complainant, in which we provide to that individual as much information as we can without breaching our obligation to protect national security.
As far as SIRC is concerned, having review and complaints under one body has proven advantageous. Our reviews give us the expertise to evaluate and investigate complaints more fully. At the same time, complaints give us another window on CSIS's operations, particularly their impact on the lives of ordinary Canadians. In some jurisdictions, these functions are kept separate, but Canada's experience suggests that there are real benefits to having them under one roof.
Whether we are speaking about reviews or complaints, SIRC's recommendations are non-binding. The scheme of review that Parliament created was not meant to have SIRC substitute for either the director of CSIS, who is accountable to the minister, or for the minister, who is answerable to Parliament. Nevertheless, CSIS has implemented the majority of SIRC's recommendations and has publicly acknowledged that SIRC has made it a better organization over the years. In late 2003, then CSIS Director Ward Elcock said at a major public conference, and I will quote:
Twenty years of constant review activity have resulted in many recommendations on how we could run things differently, and many of these recommendations have mirrored adjustments that have been made to the Service's management procedures. SIRC's comments have extended into the heart of how the organization is run, including matters of source-handling, investigative methods, targeting decisions and other core functions ... Do we always share SIRC's views? No in some cases, yes in some. But that is not the point. The point is that the review process remains an ongoing debate on ways to ensure that the principles of the legislation are sustained as we evolve and adapt to new threats. That is what the legislators intended.
Having given you a very brief overview of SIRC, I'd now like to take a few more minutes to address some of the issues that are preoccupying committee members, as well as ourselves, in the context of CSIS's foreign operations.
First, I do wish to reiterate the point that I and all members and staff of SIRC are persons permanently bound to secrecy, as stipulated in the Anti-terrorism Act of 2001. For this reason, although I am free to talk about what SIRC does and what our overriding concerns and observations are, I am not at liberty to divulge any operational details or any classified information. Even with this constraint, I believe I can offer you some helpful comments to guide you in your own examination of the issue of CSIS operating abroad.
I begin by noting that both the government and CSIS itself have indicated clearly that the service has in recent years been expanding its foreign operations in pursuit of its security intelligence mandate, in order to protect Canada's national security. This is hardly surprising, given the global character of the terrorist threat and the borderless flow of information and assets in our modern world. There is no question in my mind that the law permits CSIS to work in this way and that it is appropriate to do so in order to fulfill its mandate, as specified in section 12 of the CSIS Act.
That said, the shift in CSIS's role overseas from one of strictly liaison to one that allows for operational activity of a clandestine nature is a significant change from CSIS's longstanding focus on domestic security principally conducted from within Canada. From SIRC's perspective, there are a number of criteria that come into play in order for the service to operate effectively overseas in its security intelligence function.
First, CSIS needs appropriate direction from the government to carry out this expanded function effectively and in a way that reflects government priorities.
Second, CSIS should be adequately resourced to conduct its increased overseas operations. This would include not only funding but also training.
Third, the scope and pace of the shift from predominantly domestic to global operations should be proportionate to, as well as reflective of, the threat. Furthermore, the benefits should be measurable.
Finally, the bifurcation of CSIS's investigative function should be monitored so as to assess whether it is creating a perceived or real two-tier system within the service's intelligence officer cadre, those who operate overseas versus those who work on the domestic front, and whether this in itself could lead to long-term problems.
In concluding, I would say that for over 24 years SIRC has strived to carry out its work in an objective, fair, and balanced way. We recognize that in a free society we have to use every available resource to counter threats to our national security, the most significant today being terrorism. At the same time, we must uphold the principles of accountability, fairness, adherence to the rule of law, and respect for individual rights.
I will admit that this task has become more challenging since 9/11, as allegations of human rights abuses in the name of fighting terrorism have surfaced in many countries. Canada has not been immune to such controversy, and the case of Maher Arar, which SIRC reviewed prior to the government appointing a separate commission of inquiry, serves as a case in point.
The committee and SIRC staff believe that we have helped to make CSIS a more professional organization since 1984, and we remain as committed to this objective as we were then.
Thank you for your attention, and I look forward to your questions.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Fimon and Ms. Pollak, thank you both for being here. Ms. Pollak previously appeared before the committee in 2008 or 2009, if my memory serves me. You said at the time you had doubts about the torture allegations and CSIS, but that's not what I want to talk about.
I would like us to talk about the case of a Canadian citizen, a journalist and author. This is someone who denounced the Islamic extremists and filed a complaint against CSIS. I'd like to talk about that complaint. She filed a complaint because CSIS looked at her credit file on August 24, 2004.
The complaint was considered by your services and a number of meetings were held. The citizen in question is Ms. Djemila Benhabib. You must be familiar with the file since you signed a number of reports. Ms. Benhabib filed a complaint against CSIS, which apparently investigated her and submitted a request to Equifax Canada concerning her credit. Judge Speaker came to the conclusion that everything was fine.
I read the report and saw that there was a lot of complacency. I got to the point where I asked myself whether the Security Intelligence Review Committee handled complaints properly. Let me explain. On the one hand, one document contained an interview with the various parties in English, because Ms. Benhabib was unable to obtain service in French. That's unacceptable for a federal institution. So I'd like to know why she was unable to obtain service in French.
On the other hand, according to that document, Ms. Roussel, representing the Security Intelligence Review Committee, told her in French that there would be an interview and that CSIS would testify without her being present. So it was to be an ex parte hearing. At that ex parte hearing, a summary would be declassified and handed over to her, to the extent that was possible. That would give her an overview, having regard to the security constraints and legal obligations to protect classified information. So she was told she would get a summary.
I saw the judge's report. With regard to the evidence submitted by CSIS, the only thing you could read was bits of sentences like: "The witness submitted", "The witness added", "The witness testified", "She indicated that, based on her experience", and "The witness said". What did she say? We don't know. It's so shaded out that we don't even know what they have against Ms. Benhabib. We absolutely do not know what CSIS has against Ms. Benhabib to warrant an investigation of her.
My question is simple. Did CSIS have grounds to investigate Ms. Benhabib? Did CSIS have reasons to suspect a threat to Canada's security within the meaning of section 12?
What do you think about this, Ms. Pollak?
Mr. Chairman, I hope this silence isn't included in my time.
Thank you, Chair. I will be sharing my time with Mr. Norlock.
I'd like to thank the panel for being here.
First off, all of us understand that this is not 1984. The world has changed, and so must CSIS.
But I'd like to set the record straight about what was said at a previous committee--not this committee, but the Afghan committee--with respect to dealing with issues in Afghanistan. I would ask the press and anyone at home who has an interest to go to the blues from May 5, where the CSIS people appeared here. Prior to 17:15, they will find that one of the members of the panel, Mr. Dosanjh, asked the CSIS representative a hypothetical question. He persisted in asking the question, even though the member from CSIS said he didn't like to answer hypothetical questions.
It went on and on, and finally, I think, people will find that Mr. Dosanjh said:
But if you try to seek similar evidence from sources not tainted by torture and you're unable to get that because you're in a battlefield in a country torn asunder by war, but you have this nagging feeling that something may happen to our forces, you indicate that if you try, but if you can't find it, you do act on that original information if you think the lives of our troops are at risk.
I don't think there's a Canadian out there who would expect CSIS or anyone else to ignore the information if people's lives are at risk.
My friend talks about whether we have arrangements with NDS. We have 143 Canadians killed in that country. Surely he wouldn't expect CSIS not to seek the information they can, not from torture, but to deal with colleagues around the world. I would hope that SIRC, in doing its job, overviews and oversees those kinds of situations.
I wonder if any of you would like to comment on what I've just said here.
I'm not sure that this is anything more than an experienced opinion, but that's the only thing I can give you.
We meet regularly, at least every second year, with bodies that do similar work from all over the world—typically 10 or 12 countries with whom we have good relationships. You've heard of the “five eyes”, and there are many others with whom we have good relationships, from countries that are well-established democracies and have very well-established security and intelligence functions. We get a chance to compare and contrast how our systems work versus those of others.
One of the things they say they really like about Canada's system is that basically we have attempted to remove, and have been very successful at removing, the politics from our review of what is probably the most sensitive and potentially intrusive aspect of security and intelligence anywhere. The possibilities are, of course, that people could very seriously, personally, be damaged and that human rights, individual rights, could be negatively affected. It is a very sensitive area. We've managed with our system to remove politics as much as possible. This has gone through more than 25 years now of a very effective, non-partisan process. They like that about us.
They like the fact that our people are able to get into all of the elements of the operation of the security intelligence service, that aside from a cabinet confidence, there's nothing that can be withheld from us. That goes beyond almost any other similar oversight or review body that we encounter amongst our counterparts. They say that's a very positive thing about it that is lost, for instance, in a congressional committee, where partisanship gets in and they're not able to get at a lot of the information because of the fact that these organizations can keep secrets from them.
In those two regards, and in the ability to develop an experienced staff that over the years gets to really know the inside workings, and so in terms of review can be very incisive in getting at the information and the conclusions—for all those reasons—we are told by our peers that they really feel we have a great system in Canada.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I'm very pleased to be here today to speak to the role that CSIS plays abroad in support of Canada's national security interests.
As I approach my first anniversary as the director of CSIS, I want to underscore how important it is that we have an informed and flowing dialogue about national security in Canada. There's no better setting than Parliament in which to advance this dialogue, so I'm very pleased to have been invited here today.
As you know, my assistant director of foreign collection, my colleague Monsieur Coulombe, spoke last week to the Commons' Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan. There will no doubt be some overlap in content and interest with today's proceedings, and to the extent that I can, I'll answer any questions you might have on that.
I would like to structure today's remarks in the following manner. First, I would like to briefly summarize to you what CSIS is allowed to do outside of Canada, because I don't believe that those functions have always been well understood, even by commentators in the national security community; second, I will advance to you an argument on why I think CSIS must be active outside of Canada as part of its overall mandate to protect Canada's national security; and last, I will give you a sense of what CSIS is doing abroad so that today's proceedings are strongly grounded in real-life issues and circumstances.
The central duties and functions of CSIS are defined in section 12 of the act. We are to “collect...analyse and retain information and intelligence respecting activities that” could reasonably be suspected of being security threats to Canada. We call this security intelligence. We are then to “report to and advise the Government” on that intelligence.
Based on those general powers, CSIS collects intelligence on a variety of specific threats to Canadian security, defined broadly in our act and refined by directives from cabinet and the Minister of Public Safety. These include terrorism, espionage, and foreign-influenced activities.
Most relevant to today's proceedings is the fact that the CSIS Act does not place any territorial limitation on where the service can collect security intelligence. In short, if it's a threat to Canada's security, we can collect intelligence on it, in Canada or outside Canada. This is a crucial point, because as I will explain later, threats are rarely conveniently confined in the discrete geographic space called Canada. Threats, much like air pollution or migrating species, rarely stay put for long and tend not to respect borders. They move; therefore, CSIS has to move.
The framers of the CSIS Act recognized this essential fact. The notion that CSIS must be able to operate overseas has always been recognized as necessary. Indeed, the McDonald Commission, which provided an exhaustive report in 1981 on what a Canadian security intelligence agency should look like, found that:
...we do not think that the agency should be required to confine its intelligence collecting or countering activities to Canadian soil. If security intelligence investigations which begin in Canada must cease at the Canadian border, information and sources of information important to Canadian security will be lost.
Similarly, then-Solicitor General Robert Kaplan, speaking in support of the passage of the CSIS Act, said in an appearance before a Commons committee in April 1984:
There is no statutory requirement that the entire activities of the Security Intelligence Service be performed in Canada. I think that would be unduly inhibiting....
The SIRC, whom you have just spoken to, has also recognized our mandate to collect intelligence. In its 2003-04 annual report, SIRC reported on a review of a CSIS investigation abroad and “determined that CSIS has a clear mandate to conduct...investigative activities outside Canada, and concluded that such operations will undoubtedly increase as the threat posed by international terrorism grows”.
The situation is similar for many of our international counterparts, who, like CSIS, recognize that the collection of security intelligence must be defined thematically by the threat and must be indifferent to the source or locations of those threats. Quite simply, the service's functions extend beyond Canada's shores because Canada has interests beyond those shores and threats can and do find us anywhere we are.
There are several key reasons why CSIS must focus a growing amount of its resources on foreign collection. First of all, as I alluded to earlier, threats move. The globalized world is interlinked and intertwined. International affairs is no longer the sole domain of states and of foreign affairs departments. An explosion of political, commercial and social ties has knit the globe together and made us more interdependent than ever before. And while that interdependence can be a great source of strength, it is also presents to us new challenges. Numerous global forces are pushing on our borders, softening them. If we are to protect our national security, we have to toughen them up and push them out.
This is not political science theory. It is a stark reality and can be illustrated by a few key examples.
The Internet has allowed terrorists to use social networking technology as a force multiplier, which permits them to gather in a virtual world to recruit, plan, and execute acts of terror. However, as the Internet spreads its tentacles into every society, computer, and home, the implications are enormous. Never before have so many ill-intentioned people had instant global access to every corner of the globe. It has become much easier for those abroad to plan and organize attacks on Canada or on its allies. But it's also easier for young Canadians, excited by a perverse call to action, to become radicalized and to develop into a security concern either in Canada or abroad. I don't, however, want to leave you with the impression that I'm against the Internet. It's only that we have to deal with the consequences of its use.
Of those security concerns, confronting the threat from al-Qaeda, its affiliates and its adherents, remains our number one priority. Naturally we are most concerned with those within Canada who ascribe to such movements and who advocate violence as a means to achieve their ends. In that regard, I can say that as of this month, CSIS is investigating over 200 individuals in this country whose activities meet the definition of terrorism as set out in the act.
In addition to the work that CSIS does to counter the threat that these individuals represent to Canada, CSIS also plays an important international role in protecting others from threats emanating from Canada. For example, the involvement of Canadian citizens with foreign terrorist organizations, many of them listed as such in the Criminal Code, is a relatively new phenomenon. Some Canadians even play senior roles in such organizations. I think Canada has an international obligation to work with partners to ensure that our citizens do not plan or execute terrorist acts abroad.
It may surprise some to hear that CSIS maintains an investigative interest in a disturbing number of Canadian citizens or permanent residents who have travelled abroad to engage in terrorist activities. The suspected whereabouts of these individuals span the breadth of the globe, involving countries primarily in the Middle East, parts of Africa, and South Asia, but also in Europe and the Americas.
It is also worth mentioning that the service maintains an active interest in the threat-related activities of a number of non-citizens who have ties to Canada, whether through former residence here or family links.
In a much more general sense, of course, the movement of people in and out of Canada is enormous. As the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism notes in his 2009 annual report, Canada has a proud history of openness to newcomers from around the world. Canada has the highest relative immigration rate of any major western country. In 2010, we expect to welcome about 250,000 permanent residents. This connection to the world is a Canada hallmark, a central facet of our identity.
Increasingly, however, Canadian citizens have strong links to homelands that are in distress, are failed states, or that harbour terrorist groups. Canada is therefore increasingly implicated in a more complex, turbulent world. If we are to protect our national security, we have to know that world, and we can't do that by simply reading scholarly articles. We have to collect intelligence outside of Canada to have a true grip on what is transpiring. Just as we have solid diplomatic, commercial and social relations, we need solid intelligence links.
The recent spate of terrorist kidnappings provides perhaps the most tangible example of why our work abroad is necessary. It is an unfortunate reality that many of these incidents have taken place in parts of the world where Canada has little diplomatic presence or even where diplomatic ties of any kind may be minimal.
Our lack of diplomatic engagement in some very turbulent countries should not, however, be allowed to hinder us when one of our citizens is in distress. We must find ways to engage with foreign entities in such situations. This is where CSIS can be and has been effective.
Over the past three years, an alarming number of Canadian citizens have been kidnapped by extremist elements in some of the most dangerous regions of the earth. In many of these cases, key intelligence services are given the lead for efforts to secure the release of foreign hostages. It is not unusual for them to insist that Canada's exclusive point of contact be CSIS.
Although our arrangements with certain foreign agencies have sometimes been criticized, this trust that our foreign counterparts place in the service has led directly to the safe and secure release of Canadian citizens held hostage abroad. In specific cases such as terrorist kidnappings, the Government of Canada, through CSIS, has little choice but to engage with foreign intelligence agencies, wherever they may be, if it is to protect Canadians. This is why CSIS must continue to cultivate and maintain such a large network of intelligence relationships, which currently involves over 275 agencies in approximately 150 countries around the world.
To shy away from such engagement, in my view, would be a form of unilateral disarmament in a dangerous world. It would render us extremely ineffective. It would be like sitting in a non-smoking section of a tiny restaurant, feeling proud about how we have advanced our health, as the blue haze drifts towards us. In a dangerous world, I argue that this approach is not a realistic option.
CSIS officers overseas collect information and manage and leverage relationships with foreign intelligence agencies to protect Canada, and others, against threats to their security. This is a vital part of an ongoing, international system of intelligence sharing. With major allies, this allows Canada—
Basically, what we do is try to talk to people in Afghanistan who would have some intelligence, some information, about threats to both Canada and to our allies. By definition, those people are either terrorists themselves, Taliban insurgents, or they're people who know something about them. So our job is, in one shape, form, or another, to try to acquire that kind of intelligence.
One of the categories of people that we talk to, Mr. Chair, is suspected Taliban insurgents taken into custody by the Canadian Forces through some sort of operation that they have run. Initially, when we were first in Afghanistan, over the first few years the Canadian Forces were not organized to interview these people. So in the context of a quite structured Canadian Forces interviewing program, we were frequently brought in to ask them questions, usually to try to ascertain their identity, to try to find out what they had been up to. In most cases, these interviews lasted less than 15 or 20 minutes. They were then transferred, at the call of the Canadian Forces or not, to the Afghan authorities.
So, yes, our job involves talking to people in Afghanistan who potentially would do harm to Canadians and to try to use that information, to provide it to both Canadian authorities and the Afghan authorities, to forestall harming Canadian and allied lives.