Hamilton man's case raises questions about CSIS complaints process

Fearing the process would be a waste of time, Ken Stone has so far chosen not to complain to the Security Review Intelligence Committee about the visit he received from CSIS agents.

After CSIS arrived at his front door unannounced and uninvited, Ken Stone decided to speak out in the press against what he sees as a campaign on the part of the spy agency to "intimidate" activists.

Hamilton activist Ken Stone said CSIS agents paid him a visit at his home on Jan. 25, two weeks after an op-ed he wrote criticizing the prime minister's approach on Iran was published in the Hamilton Spectator. (Supplied)

Given the Hamilton, Ont., resident's history as a human rights crusader and staunch critic of Prime Minister Stephen Harper — Stone believes an op-ed he wrote criticizing the prime minister's stance on Iran inspired the CSIS visit — his move to alert the media was hardly a shock. What's surprising, perhaps, is what he has so far chosen not to do.

Related: After visit from CSIS, Hamilton man criticizes 'intimidation'

After consulting NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison, Stone decided not to make a complaint to the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC). Created in 1984, the independent body watches over CSIS and hears grievances, including those from the public, about how the spy agency operates.

"He did not suggest to me to make such a complaint," he said, adding that he plans to file a Freedom of Information request to learn why agents knocked on his door. "He said that they just don't listen to you."

According to Andrew Mitrovica, a journalist and author who's been critical of SIRC, Stone "was probably right" to approach the media and not bother with the formal complaints process. However, he says he fears that people who are less media-savvy may have a harder time getting their concerns addressed.

"In the past, complainants I've talked to tend not to have received any kind of satisfactory response," Mitrovica said, speculating that Stone's claim, if he were to make one, would be dismissed.

The body, he added, has a budget of only $2.7 million and its decision-makers are part-time appointees, which renders them unable to meaningfully deal with complainants' concerns.

'If there's the suggestion that it's not worth it, I don't know where that comes from.'—Sylvie Roussel, Security Intelligence Review Committee

"They just don't have the time, they just don't have the money. I don't even know how they set their strategic agenda for the year. What do they even give priority to?"

Sylvie Roussel, SIRC's senior counsel, rejected the notion that filing a complaint is a waste of time.

"If there's the suggestion that it's not worth it [to file a complaint to SIRC], I don't know where that comes from," she told CBC Hamilton.

Roussel would not speculate on whether the committee would take on Stone's case, nor on the issue of whether SIRC has sufficient resources to properly assess every claim it receives.

However, she insisted the committee's three members "take their role very seriously" and follow a systematic process when evaluating the complaints they receive.

Complaints process

According to its latest annual report, SIRC handled 33 complaints during the 2011-2012 fiscal year, 17 of which were new and 16 of which carried over from the year before. Eleven cases, or one third, were closed for one of a few reasons:  they were terminated by the complainant; they were deemed to be out of the committee's jurisdiction; or the committee completed, and reported on, an investigation.

Having one's complaint heard is a multi-step process, one that can take up to 2.5 years, said Roussel.

A complainant must make her case in writing to the director of CSIS before submitting it to SIRC. "If they wait 30 days for a response or are unhappy with the response, they can make a formal complaint to SIRC," Roussel said.

Once SIRC receives a complaint and verifies that the applicant satisfied the first step, committee members must decide whether they have jurisdiction over the case. Section 41 of the CSIS Act stipulates that the committee may take on complaints they deem not be "trivial, frivolous, vexatious or made in bad faith."

If committee members decide they have jurisdiction, they then invite the complainant for a preliminary conference, during which the applicant can decide whether the investigation should be conducted through written correspondence or in oral hearings in Ottawa.

When SIRC wraps up a case, it issues a report on its findings to the federal minister of public safety and the director of CSIS, who may decide whether to adopt the committee's recommendations.

A redacted version of the report, with sensitive material concerning national security blocked out, is provided to the complainant.

This process, Mitrovica said, is tough on the complainant and discourages ordinary Canadians from taking their concerns about CSIS to SIRC — particularly if they wish to deliver their cases in person.

"Complainants really have to soldier most of the resources, mostly in terms of the time and money needed to pursue the complaint," he said. He added that expenditures such as travelling to Ottawa and retaining a lawyer can be extremely costly.

"We have a process and we follow that process, but it's flexible enough that we're not bound by a strict set of rules," Roussel countered. "If there are specific issues, they'll be addressed through a pre-hearing conference."

However, she wouldn't say whether the committee offers any special programs or aid for complainants who face financial or other logistical barriers.

"If an individual has an issue, then they can bring it up with the committee, but I cannot comment further than that."

Expanded role

SIRC gained more responsibilities in 2012 when the federal government eliminated the CSIS inspector general's office, which monitored the spy agency's day-to-day operations and also reported to the minister of public safety.

Related: Strahl defends expansion of security watchdog's role

Garrison, who represents the Vancouver Island riding of Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, said he wants clarity on SIRC's expanded role and what powers it has to keep CSIS accountable.

"What I'm going to be looking for from SIRC is oversight on policy and practices," he told CBC Hamilton. "I'll be asking specific questions about home and work visits [from CSIS officials] because of the appearance of intimidation they create."