CSIS director Michel Coulombe downplayed the actions of security agents in testimony before the standing Senate committee on national security and defence. He told senators the service did not seek judicial approval in any of the cases, meaning the spy agency did not deem its actions to be in breach of anyone’s charter rights.
Coulombe said after C-51 became law last June, the agency didn’t immediately seize its new “tools” — powers that some critics say are virtually unlimited. Instead, he said, it took “months” to receive ministerial directives, develop training and policy protocols to govern their use, and CSIS began in the fall to act with them. Coulombe disagreed that the powers are “exceptional,” saying many of Canada’s allied spy agencies have them.
The Liberal election platform promised to “guarantee that all Canadian Security Intelligence Service warrants respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms” which suggests the new government will rein in the new powers. But no amendments are expected until this fall after public consultation.
Coulombe later suggested the threat-reduction measures employed were minimally interventionist and akin to the kinds of steps CSIS already used, telling reporters that “in general terms . . . it goes from overt interviews with somebody to let him know he’s under investigation to engaging family, friends, community leader to try to engage with the person to try to divert him from radicalization.”
The use of such powers is shrouded in secrecy.
CSIS won’t talk about the range of activity it is prepared to undertake, or the training of its agents. And the Federal Court is unable to publish notification of any warrant applications under the national security provisions.
Coulombe also refused to say how many success stories CSIS has had where it was able to disrupt plots.
But the head of CSIS used the appearance to publicly update the numbers of suspected terrorism travellers who’ve gone abroad and “returnees,” and to warn Canadians against “complacency in the face of this complex and evolving environment.”
“Minimizing this threat would be to gamble with the security of Canadians,” he said.
Coulombe said Canadians should bear in mind some terrorist sympathizers may have no desire or capacity to travel abroad, and could still do harm in Canada, and pointed several times to potential terrorist attacks in Canada that have been pre-empted.
He also cited the two attacks in St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, Que., and Ottawa — which killed two Canadian soldiers in October 2014 — and disputed any suggestion they should be regarded as two separate murders, limited in scale, even as he denied that “the terrorist threat is being inflated.”
Instead, Coulombe suggested the impact of the attacks was significant on Canadians’ sense of security and warned of potential impacts of attacks on Canada’s cross-border economy “if the result was a lack of confidence among our partners in the United States.”
Coulombe said CSIS does not have the resources to monitor full time all combatants who come back to Canada but sought to assure senators that not all of them represent a similar threat. Some returnees may return to normal lives, while others may seek to radicalize others, or to finance or facilitate the travel of others, or turn to attack planning, he said. CSIS adjusts its surveillance accordingly, he said. Asked why they haven’t been charged, he said that’s a question for the RCMP but added sufficient evidence to lay a terrorism charge is difficult to obtain from Syria and Iraq.
Coulombe said 50-55 per cent of CSIS resources are now focused on counter-terrorism efforts, with its second priority being counter-espionage. He said the money committed over the next five years “puts us in a good position to fight terrorism without having an impact on other areas.”
Coulombe said the terrorist threat posed by Daesh — also known as ISIS or ISIL — in Syria and Iraq will not end even if allies are able to defeat it militarily. The 25,000 to 30,000 foreign fighters known to have flooded the region to fight among its ranks will disperse and return to their countries of origin, including Canada.
“It’s a threat that we will have to continue to investigate honestly for decades,” he said.
With reports Monday that a Canadian, Owais Egwilla, had died fighting in Libya, Coulombe was asked how many Canadians overall had died overseas. He declined to give a number, saying the reports have proven to be wrong in the past. Later he refused to tell reporters whether Egwilla was on CSIS’ radar, saying he would not discuss any individual case.
Egwilla, an Ottawa-area university student whose cleric father encouraged Libyans to “take part in jihad.” He was reportedly killed fighting government forces near the city of Benghazi.
“All I’m saying is we have to be really careful before jumping to the firm conclusion that somebody was killed,” said Coulombe.
Author: Tonda MacCharles