The Liberal government has issued a new directive to restrict Canada's electronic spy agency, the military and foreign ministry from using — or passing along —  information that may have been derived from torture.

The only exception would be when the information is "absolutely necessary to prevent loss of life or significant personal injury" and that the person involved is "someone is about to commit a terrorist act."

The directive is similar to one issued by Public Safety to the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service earlier this year.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement that the decisions about how the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and the military use, or do not use, the information will be subject to review by existing watchdogs, including the new national security committee of parliamentarians.

The directive covers both ends of the information pipeline.

The Canadian agencies cannot hand over information — or request it —  from a foreign agency, such as a military, intelligence service,  or police, when there is a serious risk of someone being abused.

There will also be a classified annual report produced.

Significantly, the directive requires the military to advise other government agencies and the defence minister immediately if another country "is engaging in, or contributing to, mistreatment." 

CSE had previous guidance

The new order covers information that is shared among the so-called Five Eyes intelligence agencies, whose other members are the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

It is particularly relevant because the directive addresses one of the key features of the controversy over the alleged torture of Afghan detainees.

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The Liberal government has issued a new directive to restrict Canada's electronic spy agency from using information that may have been derived by torture carried out by other countries. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Human rights groups accused the Canadian government of knowingly handing suspected Taliban militants over to Afghan authorities who allegedly tortured the prisoners for intelligence on the insurgency,  information that was also purportedly shared with a wider circle of allies.

It is a charge successive governments have repeatedly and vehemently denied.

"The Government of Canada unequivocally condemns in the strongest possible terms the mistreatment of any individual by anyone for any purpose," Sajjan said.

"Torture is a criminal offence, and is contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and prohibited by international law. Our government works for Canadians, who expect us to be diligent and careful in preventing complicity in mistreatment when conducting our intelligence and defence operations."

NDP defence critic Randall Garrison said the government's action did not go far enough, and the country remains in a precarious legal and moral position.

"This is no change," he said Thursday. "It still allows the use of information derived from torture, and that is absolutely prohibited under international law."

Federal officials, speaking on background Thursday, said up until now the military and foreign affairs had not been covered by this kind of directive, but CSE did have previous guidance.

Garrison dismissed the directive as public relations exercise.

"Canada is still on the wrong side of international law, but they are trying to make it look like they are taking measures which would prevent what happened with the Afghan detainees," he said.  

Amnesty International Canada, one of the groups that led the fight over the transfer of Afghan prisoners, struck a conciliatory tone in reaction to the announcement.

"Those directions constituted a long-overdue and very positive step toward reducing the possibility of Canadian complicity in torture or other forms of mistreatment through our intelligence sharing relationships," said Amnesty Canada's secretary general Alex Neve in a statement.

It would, however, insist there be an "absolute ban" the use of information obtained through "torture in all respects."