When I sat down Tuesday night to put some thoughts on paper about allegations of spying on Canadian environmental and pro-democracy groups, I never imagined those musings would end up being read by tens of thousands of people and spawn news coverage across the country.
But that’s exactly what happened. In my original piece, I lamented that the story wasn’t being covered by traditional news outlets — but within a couple of days the Globe and Mail, Metro, Sun News, the Victoria Times Colonist and CBC had picked up on the story. The National Energy Board, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), several politicians and Alberta’s energy minister all commented on the spying allegations.
On Monday morning, I did three CBC Radio interviews — here's a clip of me discussing the spying allegations on Daybreak North.
I’ve spent much of the past week brushing up on the ins and outs of surveillance, speaking to lawyers, reporters and trusted friends about the implications of the Vancouver Observer’s report.
Here are answers to the three most pressing questions raised by this news.
1) What evidence is there of spying in the documents obtained by the Vancouver Observer?
Most of the documents are e-mails from the National Energy Board’s security lead, Rick Garber, describing security plans for the Enbridge Northern Gateway public hearings in the first half of 2013. In one of those e-mails, Garber writes that his team “has consulted today with Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) at national and regional levels; RCMP at national, regional and local levels.”
This reference to CSIS is notable because it is the first public evidence of Canada’s spy agency being involved in monitoring the Enbridge hearings. The extent of the involvement of CSIS is unclear. In other e-mails from the National Energy Board, specific events and protests were described and assessed for security risks.
Combined with The Guardian’s recent revelations that CSIS and the RCMP have been hosting secret briefings with the energy industry, the involvement of CSIS in the Enbridge hearings raises a lot of questions.
2) What else was notable in those documents?
The other newsworthy item in the documents is an e-mail memo with the subject line “Security Concerns – National Energy Board.” It was sent by Tim O’Neil, senior criminal intelligence research specialist with the RCMP, and circulated to a lengthy list of stakeholders, including CSIS.
In that memo, O’Neil describes “sustained opposition to the Canadian petroleum and pipeline industry,” adding opponents have “the ultimate goal of forcing the shutdown of the Canadian petroleum industry.”
Forcing the shutdown of the Canadian petroleum industry? While there are many Canadian environmental organizations advocating to pause the expansion of oilsands development at least until adequate monitoring is in place, you’d be hard-pressed to find a credible group working to "shut down the Canadian petroleum industry." O’Neil’s description indicates a troubling lack of understanding of the Canadian energy debate and the people he appears to be tasked with providing "intelligence" on.
He goes on to write: “The anti-petroleum … movement has attempted to interfere within the federal regulatory hearings and have used coordinated/mass intervention that have at times bogged down the regulatory hearings.”
Pro-democracy and environmental groups informed citizens about how to register to speak at the Enbridge public hearings. At what point did the public speaking at public hearings become "interference?"
O’Neil also states there is “no intelligence indicating a criminal threat to the NEB or its members” and “I could not detect a direct or specific criminal threat.”
The mandate of CSIS is to monitor “threats to Canada’s national security.” If no threat can be detected, one wonders why the spy agency is being kept in the loop. It raises the question of why CSIS would be involved in the perfectly legal, legitimate, non-violent democratic activities of citizens.
At the end of his e-mail, O’Neil advises recipients to discuss concerns with officials at the May 23rd Natural Resources Canada classified briefing. This is the briefing where breakfast, lunch and coffee were sponsored by Enbridge, while representatives of CSIS and the RCMP exchanged “intelligence” on such topics as “challenges to energy projects by environmental groups.”
3) What’s wrong with all of this?
The National Energy Board co-ordinating with local police forces to ensure safe public hearings is perfectly reasonable — but the involvement of CSIS raises a couple of concerns.
First, these taxpayer-funded agencies appear to be spending their time monitoring the legal activities of Canadian citizens and organizations, which raises questions about public safety resources being used in the interests of the oil industry.
Second, the sharing of intelligence with the energy industry calls into question whose best interests the government has in mind — oil companies' or the public's?