'This isn't about national security': Civil liberties group publishes CSIS reports related to alleged spying
Documents had been held under a confidentiality order by the security review body
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has released thousands of heavily redacted documents by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) in regards to allegations the agency had spied on peaceful protesters of the now-defunct Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project.
The BCCLA has uploaded all the documents to a searchable website.
The CSIS-disclosed documents had been held under a confidentiality order by the Security Intelligence Review Committee [SIRC], Canada's spy agency watchdog, which recently expired.
"What we've now received is a huge volume of secret evidence that we didn't get to see at all before," said Paul Champ, a lawyer with Champ and Associates representing the BCCLA.
Champ told CBC's Early Edition host Stephen Quinn the documents show over 500 CSIS reports about individuals or groups who had been protesting the pipeline proposal.
"[It] raises concerns that this isn't about national security, but it's about protecting the economic interests of Canada's energy sector and, in our view, that's completely beyond CSIS' mandate," he said.
The civil liberties association first challenged CSIS' actions in 2014 with a complaint to SIRC alleging the agency was spying on pipeline opponents. The association further claimed the information was being shared with the National Energy Board and the petroleum industry.
During private hearings with SIRC, CSIS disclosed the now-available documents.
The complaint was dismissed, however, when the review committee concluded information had only been gathered on peaceful protesters as a by-product of investigations into legitimate threats, not as the goal.
The BCCLA has been working to overturn the watchdog's dismissal in Federal Court.
Retaining information on protesters
The newly disclosed documents reveal Canada's spy service routinely welcomed reports from the energy industry about perceived threats and kept such information in its files in case it might prove useful later.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service is supposed to retain only information that is "strictly necessary" to do its job, and the spy agency is now facing questions about whether it collected and hung on to material about groups or people who posed no real threat.
CSIS says it won't provide comment as SIRC's decision on the complaint is before the courts, but it did provide a short statement that "CSIS investigates activities that fall within the definition of threats to the security of Canada and reports them to the government of Canada."
It also noted SIRC's 2017 decision, which found it had not acted out of its mandate.
A statement from Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale contained similar sentiments, adding he won't comment while the case is before the courts.
During one hearing, a CSIS official whose identity is confidential told the committee that information volunteered by energy companies was put in a spy service database.
"It is not actionable. It just sits there," the CSIS official said. "But should something happen, should violence erupt, then we will go back to this and be able to see that we had the information ... it is just information that was given to us, and we need to log it."
'Something we don't expect to experience'
The review committee heard from several witnesses and examined hundreds of documents in weighing the civil liberties association's complaint.
Advocacy and environmental groups Leadnow, the Dogwood Initiative and the Council of Canadians are mentioned in the thousands of pages of CSIS operational reports scrutinized by the review committee.
"This is something we don't expect to experience here in Canada," says Alexandra Woodsworth with Dogwood BC.
Especially concerning, she says, is how the document suggest CSIS shared their information with fossil fuel companies.
"Our tax dollars are being used to spy on Canadians to benefit the fossil fuel industry," said Woodsworth. "A government that appears to be working more to safeguard the interests of big oil than to safeguard the interests of its citizens."
But the committee's report said CSIS's activities did not stray into surveillance of organizations engaged in lawful advocacy, protest or dissent.
A CSIS witness testified the spy service "is not in the business of investigating environmentalists because they are advocating for an environmental cause, period."
Still, the review committee urged CSIS to ensure it was keeping only "strictly necessary" information, as spelled out in the law governing the spy service.
But Caitlyn Vernon with the Sierra Club of B.C. said in a statement she has witnessed the public's growing wariness of expressing dissent for fear of being added to a list.
"Spying on people who are participating in public processes — and then giving that information to the oil industry — is an illegal attack on democracy," said Vernon.
The civil liberties association told the committee of a chilling effect for civil society groups from the spy service's information-gathering as well as comments by then-natural resources minister Joe Oliver denouncing "environmental and other radical groups."
One CSIS witness told the committee that Oliver's statement did not flow from information provided by the spy agency.
"As a service, we never found out where he was coming from, where he got this information or who had briefed him," the unnamed CSIS official said. "So we're not sure where he got it. But it wasn't from us."
CSIS questioned if it was going too far
The review committee found CSIS did not share information about the environmental groups in question with the NEB or the petroleum industry.
The association wants the Federal Court to take a second look, given CSIS created more than 500 operational reports relevant to the committee's inquiry.
"The main impression one draws from the [committee] report is 'nothing to see here, look away,' when in fact there is a lot to see here," said Champ.
Dozens of censored CSIS records say the reporting was further to "the service's efforts in assessing the threat environment and the potential for threat-related violence stemming from [redacted] protests/demonstrations."
Some of the documents reveal CSIS itself is questioning whether it is going too far, noting that the spy service is "pressing on the limitations of our mandate."
The notion that information on some groups or individuals was gathered incidentally is "cold comfort to people whose names might end up in the databanks of Canada's intelligence service simply because they expressed a political opinion on Facebook, signed a petition or attended a protest," Champ said.
One document refers to the Dogwood Initiative as a "non-profit, Canadian environmental organization that was established in 1999 'to help communities and First Nations gain more control of the land and resources around them so they can be managed in a way that does not rob future generations for short-term corporate gain."'
The passages before and after the description are blacked out.
"This court case will take some time to play out," Champ said. "Right now, we are focused on getting access to as much information as possible so we can properly make our main arguments about how these CSIS activities violate the law."
With files from Joel Ballard