CSIS “Can Neither Confirm Nor Deny” Spying on Me (Or You For That Matter)

When I asked the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) whether it has files on me or DeSmog Canada, I got a response that's been used as a non-answer by government spokespeople and celebrity publicists for 40-plus years: We can "neither confirm nor deny" the records exist.

The intelligence body doesn't have to disclose such information because it's exempt from Canada’s Access to Information legislation since it relates to “the detecting, preventing or suppressing subversive or hostile activities.”

Hmph. Some part of me was expecting them to simply say "no." While non-denial denial responses like this are pretty par for the course when dealing with intelligence services — the phrase was first conjured up during a clandestine CIA submarine operation in the 1970s — it's disconcerting in light of the federal government’s proposed anti-terrorism bill C-51, which would increase the powers of CSIS and its role in government-sponsored spying.

As others have pointed out, bill C-51 will allow dangerously strong measures to be taken against even perceived terror threats or individuals that pose a threat to Canada’s critical infrastructure, such as pipelines, or the nation’s financial security.

The language in bill C-51 has been roundly criticized for being so broad that it endangers the democratic rights of Canadian citizens and their ability to engage in legitimate dissent. Under the new legislation, CSIS could foreseeably monitor the activities of ordinary Canadians participating in community organizing, climate activism, blockades, strikes or pipeline protests.

As a recently leaked RCMP intelligence report highlights, environmental and First Nation groups are already targeted for surveillance in Canada and are being characterized (some say hyperbolically) as “violent anti-petroleum extremists.”

As an editor at a news outlet that routinely reports on energy and environment issues directly related to "critical infrastructure," I thought it sensible to submit two requests to CSIS through the Access to Information and Privacy Act to see if any records came back.

For the record, I have no particular reason to think CSIS is monitoring either me or DeSmog Canada. To be sure, they have no legitimate reason to. But I find the inability to know whether we've been swept up in the spy agency's wide net concerning, as many other Canadians likely would.

Unfortunately, when it comes to CSIS, Canadians can expect very little transparency, a cause for additional concern when you recall Harper eliminated the position of the CSIS watchdog in 2012. The only overview of CSIS is handled by the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), a body comprised of part-time appointees with limited resources that assess CSIS operations after-the-fact.

DeSmog Canada's CSIS Privacy Request for Editor Carol Linnitt by DeSmog Canada

DeSmog Canada's CSIS Access to Information Request by DeSmog Canada

I reached out to Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), to see what he makes of these responses from CSIS.

"It certainly looks like the way the law is being interpreted there really aren't any 'citizens above suspicion,’” Gogolek said. “Or at least CSIS apparently won't confirm or deny” if such citizens exist.

Gogolek said it’s fair CSIS wouldn’t want to release information relevant to an ongoing investigation through the Access to Information process, but added, “likewise they shouldn't use this as a blanket excuse to refuse to release information."

Access to Information Act Gutted Under Harper 

Reg Whitaker, distinguished research professor emeritus at York University and adjunct professor of political science at the University of Victoria, is a national security expert who has written several books on the topic including The End of Privacy: How Total Surveillance is Becoming a Reality.

Whitaker said when it comes to transparency, the Harper government has successfully gutted the Access to Information and Privacy Act over the last several years.

“Their idea is: you let out as little as possible, you make it as difficult and you make it as expensive as you can to make it difficult to use the Act in the first place,” Whitaker said.

“That’s not necessarily related to CSIS or the RCMP or surveillance of ongoing movements,” he conceded. “There’s just a general tendency that they are trying to stop up the flow of information about what they’re doing generally across the board.”

But when it comes to CSIS, Whitaker said, “there’s this extra sensitivity, obviously.”

As the Harper government looks to expand the power of CSIS under the name of “counter-terrorism,” Whitaker said, “we know they are focusing on activist groups and certainly anti-pipeline groups, or more generally groups focused on resource issues and mega projects that have the highest priority in this government.”

“They will always claim that they’re only focusing on the potential for violence, therefore it falls into the category of terrorism. But there’s no way they can carry on the surveillance of potential violent activity of these groups without spying on these groups.”

“They are doing it and they’re very sensitive about trying to make sure there is as little information getting out there as possible,” he said.

But information still has a way of getting to the public, Whitaker added, such as the leaked RCMP intelligence report first published on DeSmog Canada.

Whitaker acknowledges there is no way to know if myself or DeSmog Canada is being monitored by CSIS.

“I don’t know if in your case that what’s happened with your request signifies you’re a target,” he said. “It could well be that you’re not. But they’re going to give you the same answer whether you had been a target that sought their files, or someone who wasn’t but thought they might be.”

RCMP and CSIS Risk Losing Social Licence

And that’s a problem, Whitaker said, arguing the outcome of a surveillance campaign like this will be growing social mistrust.

“The implications are not going to be good for social licence,” he said. “It’s a pretty fuzzy concept, but it’s a phrase that is used a lot these days.”

Whitaker said it is clear pipeline proponents Enbridge and Kinder Morgan have lost their social licence with individuals worried about the environment, First Nations and “generally the population of British Columbia feeling they’re having these juggernauts rammed down their throats.”

In much the same way, the RCMP and CSIS risk the social licence they require to adequately address real security threats.

“With CSIS and the RCMP in fighting terrorism, it’s very important, I think, that they — and in their more lucid moments they’d agree, I’m sure — that they have social licence.”

But with the looming implications of Bill C-51 both CSIS and the RCMP put their social licence at risk.

“What they’re in danger of doing now as bill C-51 goes through and their powers get greatly expanded and the definition of what they’re looking at is being expanded so broadly, well beyond terrorism in fact…they are going to seriously lose that social licence with a much larger proportion of the Canadian population.”

The loss of public support is something “they ought to be very worried about,” Whitaker said, adding it’s unclear “how much they are being pushed by the present government to focus on the quote-unquote anti-petroleum movement, etc. and how much is coming from within CSIS and the RCMP.”

“But certainly pressure has been coming from government.”

Image Credit: Emory Allen via Flickr

New title

You’ve read all the way to the bottom of this article. That makes you some serious Narwhal material.

And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).

As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired eight journalists over the past year.

Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 2,900 members

The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.

We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.

We’ve drafted a plan to make 2021 our biggest year yet, but we need your support to make it all happen.

If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

Saving the salmon: why the Gitanyow are creating a new Indigenous Protected Area

When the sun sets in a bowl-shaped basin on Ana’miso mountain on Gitanyow lax’yip (territory) in northwest B.C., that means the sockeye salmon are running...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Help power our ad-free, non‑profit journalism
Get The Narwhal in your inbox!

People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism