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Watchdog approves controversial Bill C-51 'threat-reduction' powers
Colin Freeze
The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Sep. 29, 2016 12:15PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Sep. 29, 2016 1:06PM EDT

The watchdog body for Canada's spy service has given a tentative green light to the controversial new "threat-reduction" powers exercised by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

These powers, which would allow CSIS to secretly disrupt the plans of suspected terrorists, without ever revealing tactics or bringing anyone to court, were formalized in the 2015 Conservative Bill C-51.

But these CSIS powers have been used responsibly since being enshrined in law, according to the Security Intelligence Review Committee's (SIRC) first-ever audit of them.

"CSIS has developed a sound governance framework, including policies and pro cedures, to help guide the approval and conduct of threat-reduction activities," the watchdog committee said in its report released Thursday.

It added that the powers had been exercised about two dozen times since becoming law.

The SIRC findings are significant because while the Liberals voted for Bill C-51, they campaigned against facets of the controversial bill, including the elements of the new CSIS powers. By doing this, the party presented itself as a less-draconian alternative to the Conservative government of the day.

Once the Liberals took power, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was appointed to the job of running security agencies, including CSIS. He was given a mandate from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to rein in the "problematic elements" of Bill C-51.

Mr. Goodale is currently conducting a public-consultation exercise on such issues, saying he wants to hear from the public before drafting any legislation. He is not known to have altered the executive-branch directive signed by his Conservative predecessor, Steven Blaney, spelling out how CSIS may use its new powers.

According to SIRC, the existing Bill C-51 framework is working so far. Most of the time, CSIS uses them under executive-branch authorities, guided by a formal ministerial directive signed by Mr. Blaney.

In extraordinary cases, CSIS can contemplate activities regarding terrorism suspects that could violate their rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But prior approval from a Federal Court judge is needed for these more invasive measures, however, and SIRC says no such warrants have been sought by CSIS since the powers became law.

The watchdog did have some mild criticisms of the current CSIS powers. The spy agency is now signing memos with Canadian diplomats and RCMP detectives undertaking to give the partner agencies a heads-up about how the new powers may be used. SIRC would like to see more formal mechanisms put in place.

Over all, though, "SIRC was satisfied with the governance framework that CSIS had put in place," the annual report said.

CSIS, Mr. Goodale and the federal government, have never spoken explicitly to how threat-reduction measures are taking shape. The power is designed, by law, to be exercised in perpetual secrecy.

In 2015, CSIS director Michel Coulombe told Parliament that C-51 could allow his intelligence officers to "go into disrupting a financial transaction," or "disabling a mobile device" or "tampering with equipment."

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