Steven Blaney needs to answer some questions about spying



Sometimes being a journalist on Parliament Hill is frustrating.

Sometimes you want an interview with a certain minister — say, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney — and they refuse every request.

Sometimes you want a technical briefing on a piece of legislation — say, the Conservatives’ new anti-terror bill that will expand powers for CSIS — but don’t get it.

Sometimes you look forward to a committee studying legislation, but the committee schedule basically kiboshes that hope — like the Public Safety committee limiting study of the new anti-terror bill to two meetings — and it makes it hard to fully understand an issue.

But perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of journalism on the hill is that, when you finally get a minister in front of you, they won’t answer your damn questions.

That’s what happened yesterday after Steven Blaney stood in front of reporters and, essentially, gave the same answer, regardless of the question.

He had just walked out of a committee where he did more or less the same thing, but he made such dubious statements as saying that C-44 — which empowers Canadian spies to ignore laws of foreign countries — is the most constitutional bill they’ve ever written.  Right.

As such, I’ve produced a transcript of two questions I asked the minister, but I decided to mark them up.  Because if the minister won’t answer questions, I may as well have a crack at it.

Canadians have concerns, after the Snowden revelations, that the NSA would have access to Canadians’ information — private information — without any real oversight.  Evidently this bill expands the way in which other countries can get information from Canadians and how our services can spy on Canadians.  Do you not think there should be more oversight in place to look after that?

This bill mainly restores and preserves the capability of CSIS[1] to protect Canadians by confirming the capability to operate outside of Canada[2] and also to preserve sources.[3]  So in this matter, this bill is just maintaining the capacity of the service to protect Canadians against the terrorist threat as it is evolving and to which we’ve been facing.[4]

But it re-implements a power that the commissioner said he was concerned with and raised issue with.  He was concerned with the fact that there didn’t really appear to be any oversight mechanism with how CSIS, the NSA and CSEC spied on other Canadians.

Let me be crystal clear:[5] this bill is restoring existing capabilities[6] of CSIS that the court has invited us to define[7].  That’s why this bill will make it easier for the court to oversee the activity of the service,[8] and as you know, there is already a robust oversight system in place for the overall activity for CSIS[9] — which is the security review committee,[10] and they are doing an outstanding job,[11] and as I said in my statement today, I expect the service to fully comply with the recommendation body[12] that is overseeing the body.

[1] Okay, this has got to be the most annoying talking point.  Here’s the backstory: up until about 2007, CSIS had begun running some level of operations abroad, unbeknownst to the host country.  We don’t know the extent to which they were doing so, but we do know that, in one warrant, CSIS asked a federal court for a warrant to collect Canadians’ data abroad.  The judge (Blanchard) refused, informing the spy agency that it had no such power — it could only operate abroad if it had the permission of the country where the surveillance was taking place.  The spy agency then tried again, telling a second federal judge (Mosley) that, since all the data interception would be done from within Canada, everything is hunky-dory.  Mosley, later suspicious, followed-up and found that CSIS had been employing CSEC and the NSA to do the dirty work and that misleading the court — telling them that you’re doing everything from Ottawa, when in actuality you’ve farmed it out to Fort Meade —isn’t okay.

[2] No judge, to my knowledge, ever said CSIS had the ability to operate overseas.  As Blanchard wrote: “Absent an express enactment authorizing the Court to issue an extraterritorial warrant, the Court is without jurisdiction to issue the warrant sought”

Mosley later expanded: “[That] the Court has the jurisdiction to issue a warrant…for the domestic interception of foreign telecommunications under certain defined conditions remains valid in my view.  That jurisdiction does not extend to the authority to empower the Service to request that foreign agencies intercept the communications of Canadian persons travelling abroad either directly or through the agency of CSEC under its assistance mandate.”

So it’s not “restoring”any capability.  It’s restoring that thing that CSIS was doing that it wasn’t allowed to be doing, ever.

[3] Blaney is right, here.  This legislation does preserve the authority of CSIS to use anonymous sources — in that the courts have already given them this power.  It’s just on a case-by-case basis.

[4] Truth be told, I’m not 100% sure how this helps.  I mean, in the esoteric ‘more powers to the spy agency makes us safer’ sense, giving CSIS new tools is logical.  But we can ask the CIA/NSA to investigate threats for us.  It would be nice if the minister gave us some specific examples, here.

[5] Can we ban this phrase?

[6] How do you restore existing capabilities?

[7] The court invited you to do no such thing.  Mosley wrote that: “It is open to Parliament, as discussed above, to amend the statute to enable the Court to authorize foreign interception.”

That’s not an invitation.

[8] I don’t know how that’s true.  I mean, I suppose it’s true in the sense of ‘CSIS will no longer have to try to subvert the courts.’

[9] There’s not.

[10] SIRC, a board with 2/5 empty seats.  Even SIRC is begging to have those vacancies filled.  It has also complained that CSIS is withholding pertinent information from them.

[11] “As everyone in Ottawa knows, is that SIRC, to be blunt, has become about as toothless an agency watchdog as you can find.”

[12] SIRC’s hard-hitting recommendations include things like encouraging CSIS to review distracted-driving legislation so CSIS agents can use their cellphones while tracking suspects.

I guess what I’m saying is: Steven Blaney, please call me.


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Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling

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