Opinion

How can we trust CSIS to protect our rights when it's accused of violating those of its employees?

If CSIS has indeed failed to uphold the rights of its own employees, as five people claim in a $35 million lawsuit, why should Canadians trust the spy agency with respect theirs any better?

Five longtime employees have filed a $35 million lawsuit against the spy agency

Why would an intelligence officer respect the human rights of others if his or her own colleagues are not treated with dignity and respect? (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Those who work for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) are entrusted with the extraordinary responsibility of keeping us safe and secure. One would think that task would confer a certain degree of reverence for the rights and freedoms to which we are all entitled, but instead, CSIS is being accused of violating the very rights it is supposed to be protecting, within its own organization.

According to a $35 million lawsuit filed by five longtime employees, "CSIS is a workplace rife with discrimination, harassment, bullying and abuse of authority, in which the tone set by management, namely to mock, abuse and humiliate and threaten employees, has permeated the workforce."

In the statement of claim, three Muslim intelligence officers — known only as "Bahira," "Cemal" and "Emran" — allege that anti-Islamic comments and views are common in the workplace; Bahira's hijab caused consternation and stirred suspicion amongst her colleagues, according to the claim, and all three employees experienced difficulty moving up the ranks. The plaintiffs allege there is a belief in the workplace that "all Muslims are suspect, and while they will appear to blend in, they could strike at any time."

The statement of claim alleges similar discriminatory behaviour against gay and black employees. "Alex" claims he was teased and ridiculed because of his sexuality and professionally punished for issuing a complaint. "Dina" says she was constantly teased for being the "token" black woman in the office. The employees together suggest that the treatment they experienced at CSIS constitute breaches of their charter rights.

Expanded powers

That is a serious allegation to level against any employer, but it is doubly serious when we're talking about an organization that, under the Liberals' Bill C-59, could be given expanded powers to gather intelligence — and even break the law or breach the charter — to disrupt potential security threats.

Indeed, how can an agency be trusted to carry out operations with deference to the charter (under C-59, there are specific conditions under which CSIS can "limit" a charter right) when its own officers are the alleged perpetrators of abuse? When stereotyping, discrimination and harassment is, according to these employees, part of the workplace culture at CSIS? And why would an intelligence officer respect the human rights of others if his or her own colleagues are not treated with dignity and respect?

The track record of CSIS management doesn't exactly inspire confidence in this regard. In 2000, Michel Simard, a CSIS intelligence officer, led a group of 120 past and present agency employees in a $3 million lawsuit against the federal government over bonuses and back pay. Simard was later suspended from the agency — which he called a "rat hole" for morale — for speaking out.

This is the same agency that visited Omar Khadr at Guantanamo Bay in 2003 to investigate whether his human rights were being violated. Instead, the agency itself violated Khadr's rights, according to the Supreme Court, by sharing information gleaned from interviews with U.S. officials. And most recently, CSIS came under fire late last year for illegally keeping potentially revealing electronic data on Canadian citizens over a 10-year period.

Disrupting security threats

Despite this, CSIS could be granted even more powers. Traditionally, the CSIS mandate was limited to intelligence collection rather than direct involvement in counter-terrorism efforts. That changed when Stephen Harper's government introduced Bill C-51, which allowed CSIS to actively disrupt terror plots. While the Liberals have reined in those "disruptive" powers somewhat with Bill C-59, CSIS officials still have extraordinary freedoms when it comes to investigating potential threats.

One could make the case that when dealing with 21st century terrorism threats, intelligence agencies need greater flexibility to thwart operations as soon as they arise. But based on the conduct of some CSIS agents — past and present, and as outlined in that recent 54-page statement of claim — Canadians might have a hard time believing they will use that flexibility responsibly.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Aurangzeb Qureshi

Aurangzeb Qureshi is a writer, activist and commentator based in Edmonton who writes primarily on politics and civil rights. His work has appeared in numerous international publications including Al-Jazeera English, Middle East Eye, Business Insider and Pakistan's Daily Times.