The Canadian Parliament is debating the country’s most significant national security reform in over a decade. The proposed act, known as Bill C-51, would supplement antiterror laws that were enacted following 9/11.
Bill C-51, proposed in January by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is a highly politicized response in a parliamentary election year to the October terrorist attacks in Ottawa. With Conservatives controlling the House of Commons, it is widely expected to pass before Parliament breaks in June.
Bill C-51 facilitates information-sharing among federal institutions, with no robust limits on how that information may then be used (or misused). This is a remarkable development for a country that in 2007 agreed to pay millions to compensate a Canadian citizen who suffered foreign torture as a result of inaccurate intelligence-sharing. The legislation would also augment police powers to preventively detain or restrict terror suspects.
The law’s main goal, however, is to enhance the covert powers of Canada’s security services. Canada has a national police force and a mostly domestic intelligence service, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (C.S.I.S.). These organizations haven’t always worked well together. Spies and police have been known to unproductively chase the same targets. And spying has complicated police efforts to bring charges in open court: The C.S.I.S. often tries to protect its sources and methods in criminal proceedings that demand full disclosure.
The investigation into the 1985 Air India attack, when a bomb exploded on a plane en route from Toronto to New Delhi, killing 329 people, is a prime example of this disorganization. Bill C-51 gives primacy to the C.S.I.S. and allows it to carry out investigations without police assistance.
Bill C-51 would authorize the C.S.I.S. to “take measures, within or outside Canada, to reduce” national security threats. The government argues that this would enable a range of valuable actions, like allowing C.S.I.S. agents to speak with parents of potential terrorists.
If the bill is passed, the C.S.I.S. could block the return of Canadians fighting abroad; remove Web postings it found threatening; drain bank accounts; engage in disinformation campaigns; or bypass traditional police channels in order to detain suspects. The only limits explicitly spelled out in Bill C-51 are acts that would cause “death or bodily harm,” willfully obstruct justice or violate sexual integrity.
If foreign governments have so far avoided commenting publicly on the proposed legislation, two features should stand out for the international community. Bill C-51 would permit C.S.I.S. interventions beyond Canada’s borders and it would empower Canadian courts to authorize C.S.I.S. conduct that violates “any other law, including that of any foreign state.”
Bill C-51 would only require warrants in cases of potential violation of Canadian law or its national Charter, which almost never apply outside the country. Thus there would be little judicial oversight of C.S.I.S. activities abroad.
Moreover, Canada’s independent security review mechanisms are outdated. Canadian lawmakers rarely have access to classified national security information, which means that they generally don’t have enough details of active operations. Bill C-51 includes no provisions to correct this, or strengthen external watchdogs like the SIRC.
Bill C-51 faces stiff opposition from the New Democratic Party, and has ignited the concern of civil liberties groups, lawyers and academics. The Conservatives are eager to pass antiterror legislation before general elections in October and once enacted, Bill C-51 would most likely take effect immediately.
Despite growing protests, the Conservatives have signaled no serious interest in amendments, even as protests mount.
Ahead of the 2006 federal elections, Conservatives ran on a platform of building a true foreign intelligence service. Today, the party’s political leadership is attempting to reshape a domestically focused security agency into one with enhanced foreign powers. Only partially overseen by judges and even less accountable to national review bodies, it would be authorized to act beyond the law both at home and abroad.
Source: New York Times