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Op-Ed: Does CSEC need to kill someone?

By George Arthur     Feb 19, 2014 in Politics
This is the question I am left with as I consider what it will take for Canadians to demand answers about the true operations of the spy agency that is set to move into the most expensive governmental building in the nation’s history.
According to the careers page for Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), “2014 promises to be an exciting year.” The organization is scheduled to move into “a newly constructed, state-of-the-art facility co-located with the Headquarters of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service” (CSIS). The new home for Canada’s top spies “will be the largest repository of Top Secret information in Canada.”
They say repository, I say suppository.
Where to begin… In an op-ed I recently wrote, I explained the essence of CSEC’s known espionage program; that it tracks Canadians indiscriminately and without warrant by latching onto the Media Access Control address of unwitting travellers. While addressing the obvious red herring’s that were served as justification for CSEC operations (that spying on Canadians provided for ‘Needle in the Haystack’ identification, and that such tactics could help identify potential ‘kidnappers’), I suggested that a better analogy might be to liken CSEC’s domestic espionage program to chemotherapy – a method of treatment that cannot distinguish between healthy and sick cells, and so assaults all with equal prejudice.
Admittedly, my analogy also has faults, as cancer cannot escape the effects of chemotherapy whereas it is frustratingly easy for ‘kidnappers’ or metaphoric ‘needles’ to avoid CSEC’s domestic airport surveillance program.
The reason it is important to recall these faulty analogies is because the most recent investigative work by journalists Jeremy Scahill and Glen Greenwald have shed some light on what actually happens when programs that are nearly identical to the one practiced on Canadian citizens by CSEC are applied militarily.
And with the opening of Canada’s most expensive governmental building right around the corner, with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying precious nothing about the organization (but having his various advisors assert CSEC’s right to domestic metadata), it is time for Canadians to better understand just what happens when a government opens up a billion dollar spy headquarters in the 21st century. It’s time to, as best we can, understand the ends of the metadata programs which our government is spending somewhere between $880 million and $1.2 billion dollars to effectuate.
I mean, just what will Canada’s “most powerful super computer” do? Just what will be accomplished in this new building that will use enough electricity to “light much of the nation’s capital”; in this place that conducts more transactions per day than all Canadian banks, combined?
Answering these questions is no easy thing to do. To say CSEC is secretive is a lot like saying cats are somewhat hard to herd. Cats are impossible to herd! Just ask Myth Busters. And thanks to the veil of Kafkaesque secrecy surrounding Canadian espionage programs, it is only through the release of information from whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden that citizens are able do the impossible and glean a glimmer of truth about what actually happens behind the walls of agencies like CSEC and the National Security Administration (NSA).
In examining the CBC obtained CSEC PowerPoint presentation “IP Profiling Analytics & Mission Impacts”, it is clear CSEC operations work in tandem with the 5-Eyes (mentioned on slide 19), and with the NSA in particular regarding ‘launch assistance’ (mentioned on slide 25).
Launch assistance provided by the NSA is noteworthy, and here’s why; first and foremost, the “launch assist” provided by the NSA is in reference to a “big-data system being trialed at CSEC” called Collaborative Analytics Research Environment (or CARE). The CARE system that was, or is, being trialed by CSEC with NSA supervision is labeled a “game-changer” by the report’s authors; but just what “game” is changing as CSEC learns to track people in a matter of seconds via IP profiling analytics?
For this we need to return to the work of Glen Greenwald, and in particular, Jeremy Scahill. Scahill is currently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary thanks to his remarkable work “Dirty Wars” (which was first a book). During an interview with Democracy Now! in regards to an article titled “The NSA’s Secret Role in the U.S. Assassination Program”, which was authored by Scahill and Greenwald, interviewer Amy Goodman elicited some noteworthy responses.
When asked to explain the significance of their most recent article, Scahill began by summarizing the most recent revelations about metadata espionage operations, how they interact with and impact on other covert operations - and in this particular instance - how NSA sourced metadata is used with regard to the U.S drone program. To quote Scahill directly:
“[The] NSA is providing satellite technology and communications intercept technology to the U.S. military special operations forces and the CIA that essentially mimics the activities of a cellphone tower […]. What they do is they force the SIM card or the handset of individuals that they’re tracking onto these cellphone networks, and the people don’t know that their phones are being forced onto this cellphone tower that is literally put on the bottom of a drone and acts as a virtual transceiver. And so, when they are able to triangulate where this individual is, they can locate or track them to within about 30 feet or so of their location.”
Although this application – the use of metadata for the purpose of triangulating the location of a threat to security interests – sounds like a rational pursuit, the reality of the union between metadata and drone strikes is, according to Scahill and Greenwald’s informant, abhorrent. In describing the modus operandi for initiating a drone strike, Scahill makes it painfully clear that metadata is often the only data needed in order to authorize the execution of a human being (and anyone around them):
“What we understand is that under the current guidelines issued by the White House, President Obama gives a 60-day authorization to the CIA or the U.S. military to hunt down and kill these individuals who they’ve tracked with these SIM-card-tracking technologies or handset-tracking technologies, and that they only [need] two sources of intelligence to indicate that this is the individual that they’re looking for. Those two sources […] can be signals intelligence, which is what I’ve just been describing, and they can also be what’s called IMINT, or imagery intelligence, meaning just a satellite image of an individual that they think to be this suspected terrorist. They do not require an actual human confirmation that the individual SIM card or phone handset that they’re tracking is in fact possessed by the person that they believe is a potential terrorist. And so, what we understand is that this is essentially death by metadata, where they think, or they hope, that the phone that they’re blowing up is in the possession of a person that they’ve identified as a potential terrorist. But in the end, they don’t actually really know. And that’s where the real danger with this program lies.”
Death by uncertain metadata is the danger, indeed - a very real danger. Again quoting Scahill, “we saw very recently that the U.S. carried out a drone strike that killed many members of a wedding party in Yemen.” Scahill continued:
“In fact, when we asked the White House for comment, we went to the National Security Council spokesperson, Caitlin Hayden, and asked directly, "Is it true that you’re ordering strikes where you don’t actually have any human intelligence?" And the White House refused to directly answer that. They just said, "Well, we don’t select targets based on only one source of intelligence." Well, we knew that already, and we told them that we knew that. The point here is that they don’t actually have a requirement to confirm the identity of the individuals that they’re targeting, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing so many innocent people being killed in these strikes”
And so, under the inauspicious tutelage of the NSA, CSEC is to cut the red ribbon on the most expensive governmental building in Canadian history – but why?
Red herrings aside, and instead with attention to CSEC’s protégé-mentor relationship with the NSA and to how the NSA uses metadata, it is reasonable to assume that the operations soon to take place on Ogilvie Road will be similar to those conducted by the NSA.
How will Canadians feel when it comes down the pike that the billion dollar facility paid for has been responsible for drone-striking a wedding? Does CSEC need to kill someone before Canadians will demand to know, in a meaningful way, why they are collecting metadata?
Before this building opens up, Canadians deserve an answer as to exactly what Canada’s most powerful super-computer will be super-computing; to know what will take place behind those pricey walls. In case you’re wondering, I’m not suggesting that Canadians need access to every top secret file, nor that CSEC shouldn't be involved in national security (by means of their mandate, which include three foreign based objectives coupled with a guarantee to operate in accordance with the Privacy Act, Criminal Code and Charter of Rights and Freedoms).
Protestors hold up placards featuring a picture of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and with the...
Protestors hold up placards featuring a picture of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and with the world Asylum on it during a march against the spying methods of the US in Hamburg, northern Germany on December 28, 2013
Bodo Marks, DPA/AFP/File
Instead, I am saying that Canadians need more information about what CSEC does, how it operates, how they plan to operate moving forward, complete documents on exactly how we’re safer through the use of their programs, and complete documents that detail real instances of past successes. For example, in a National Post article regarding CSEC Chief John Forster’s comments on the domestic surveillance program, Forster noted that the program – designed to ensnare people who “hide in plain sight” – had been used twice. Pray tell Mr. Forster, how did it go? I, for one, would like to know because the current information is about as comforting as a suppository (to bring it back to the start).
On a more serious note, and to wrap things up, the leading line to the article penned by Scahill and Greenwald reads as follows, “The National Security Agency is using complex analysis of electronic surveillance, rather than human intelligence, as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes – an unreliable tactic that results in the deaths of innocent or unidentified people.”
I doubt the majority of Canadians are comfortable with the use of tax money for indiscriminate domestic surveillance, nor for the funding of “unreliable” and “lethal” espionage programs.
And so, as CSEC readies to kick into high gear north of the 48th parallel with the apparent goal of launching the same misguided programs in Canada that have so far caused immeasurable damage throughout the world at the behest of potentially faulty NSA metadata, is now not the time to call elected and appointed officials to the public forum?
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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