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article imageOp-Ed: Canadian spy agency watchdog has no bark nor bite

By Ken Hanly     Dec 14, 2013 in Politics
The Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) electronic spy agency has an oversight body. However, it has little power. Its reports are censored by the very agency that it is supposed to be watching.
The Conservative government of Stephen Harper has appointed a new oversight commissioner for CSEC but he will only be part-time until April. Even Senator Hugh Segal, who was chief of staff under the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, who had a long involvement in intelligence issues, claims that any effective oversight of CSEC is "more like a prayer" than fact.
Concern about CSEC has increased with the recently released documents from Edward Snowden that show CSEC set up spying posts around the globe at the request of the US National Security Agency (NSA). The Snowden documents suggest that Canada aided the US and UK in spying on those attending the London G20s summit in 2009. They also indicate that the CSEC at one time monitored Brazil's Department of Mines and Energy. As with NSA, the CSEC gather's intelligence by intercepting foreign phone calls and hacking into computer systems around the globe.
Canadian Defence Minister Rob Nicholson assured the House of Commons last week: "There is a commissioner that looks into CSEC [and] every year for 16 years has confirmed that they've acted within lawful activities."
However, just months ago Justice Robert Decary, a recently retired commissioner of the CSEC, said that he uncovered records indicating that some of CSEC's spying "may have been directed at Canadians, contrary to law." However he also said that the records available to him were so incomplete and unclear that he was simply unable to determine if the agency was acting illegally. This is no doubt exactly how the CSEC wants it to be. The Conservative government nevertheless can point to the watchdog as if it actually carried out its mandate which it obviously does not. Nevertheless, the watchdog does carry out its real mission which is to serve as window dressing that can be pointed to when questions arise.
The predecessor of Decary, Justice Charles Gonthier, made exactly the same complaint that incomplete or missing records made it impossible for him to determine if CSEC was breaking the law. The government has done nothing to address this problem.
Intelligence experts told CBC News that the oversight issues at CSEC go much beyond keeping of poor records. The present commissioner Judge Jean-Pierre Plouffe operates with a total staff of 11. About half the staff are busy determining if the CSEC is spying on Canadians. Conservative Senator Hugh Segal said: "The notion that a group of 11 might be able to provide proper oversight is more like a prayer than any kind of constructive statement of fact."
The CSEC employs over 2,000 people who collect more data per day than all Canada's banking transactions combined. There has been a rapid expansion of CSEC since 9/11 and construction on a new headquarters began in 2011 with expected completion in 2015. The new building will be quite close to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service building and a secure passage is planned between the two buildings. The building project is slated to cost over $1.1 billion CAD. This will make it the most expensive government building in Canadian history. It is clear where government priorities lie even as the Conservative government praises itself for progress towards a balanced budget.
Canada is part of what are called the Five Eyes: Under the 1948 UKUSA agreement, CSEC's intelligence is shared with the United States National Security Agency (NSA), the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the Australian Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) and New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). Along with these services from the United States, the UK, New Zealand and Australia, CSEC is believed to form the ECHELON system. Its capabilities are suspected to include the ability to monitor a large proportion of the world's transmitted civilian telephone, fax and data traffic. The intercepted data, or "dictionaries" are "reported linked together through a high-powered array of computers known as ‘Platform’. Members of the Five Eyes share information with each other and cooperate together. Perhaps part of that cooperation might involve collecting information for one party that would be illegal for that party to collect while not illegal for another party. CSEC cannot spy on Canadians but NSA can.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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