Cops, spies and journalists: Top Mountie Bob Paulson speaks out

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson says Mounties did, indeed, spy on two journalists, without permission and contrary to RCMP policy. Their supervisors knew about it - but it happened anyway.

Spying by officers was not approved, RCMP commissioner says - so officers kept asking

In a broad and candid statement to CBC News, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson explains why (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The RCMP commissioner decided to handle this one himself — and with good reason. As Canada's top cop, Bob Paulson knew it wasn't going to look good, and that he, personally, had been in the thick of it.

So, instead of punting the question to a communications officer, the head of the RCMP sat down on Tuesday night and tapped out his own version of a tangled story about illicit spying by his officers.

Yes, he said, the Mounties put two journalists under surveillance. And no, they did not have his approval — which was required. Three times, he'd turned them down. But they'd already done it anyway.

Who's the leaker?

The tale begins with disclosures made in June of 2007 by Joel-Denis Bellavance, a highly-regarded reporter for the Montreal newspaper, La Presse. These indicated that CSIS had intelligence — or claimed to have it — about a bomb plot involving Adil Charkaoui, a suspected Al Qaeda sleeper agent.

A briefing note prepared late last year reveals that RCMP officers conducted unauthorized physical surveillance of journalists Gilles Toupin, left, and Joel-Denis Bellavance in an attempt to discover the source of a leaked CSIS document. (Twitter photos)

One question bothered CSIS: how did Bellavance get that secret document?

CSIS asked the RCMP to find out. But where to look? Plainly, the Mounties could check everyone in the government who had a copy — but there were way too many. The only other way was to track the connections of Bellavance and another journalist, Gilles Toupin, who had written about the Charkaoui file.

The investigators, Paulson reveals in his long mea culpa, "sought approval for the mildest of intrusive techniques, physical surveillance, to see who the journalists met and to compare the product of that surveillance to the suspected path of the document distribution."

But was it worth it having that come out in court? For "sensitive sectors" like politicians, journalists, religious or union leaders, the RCMP has learned to be careful. The commissioner describes the process: 

"As the acting assistant commissioner I considered the request, the suspected offence, the nature of the documents in question (the relative harm to national interests in the documents) and the sector in which we were seeking to operate. I did not approve the request."

But his investigators didn't take no for an answer. 

"I received some push back from some of the senior officers," Paulson continues. "We argued extensively about the pros and cons and as I say I ultimately did not approve it. I was asked to reconsider and I still did not approve it. That decision was made in writing and conveyed to all the appropriate authorities."

But his officers still didn't give up.

"A couple of days later," Paulson adds, "I received a more elaborate and expansive request with an operational plan which sought to explain and justify the request again by citing the virtual impossible alternative of working along the path of distribution of the document. This request however revealed that the investigative team had in fact been doing actual physical surveillance for nine days before somebody thought to seek sensitive sector approval."

Oops. This is the kind of thing communications officers don't like one bit. Admitting that this all happened without permission — and that the investigators didn't even ask until they'd already done it? What happened to "no comment?"

But Paulson's not playing that game.

"Again I did not approve the request," he goes on, "and in a two page decision reprimanded the decision makers for their having conducted the surveillance without authority and contrary to policy."

So that would put an end to it, right? Wrong. Time passed, but the investigators still wouldn't quit. 

When in doubt, keep trying

"Then the investigators sought approval," Paulson says, "to conduct a last-ditch effort to resolve the file since they had exhausted any hope of finding the leak through alternative means."

This time, they wanted to spook the journalists and see who they called.

"They proposed," Paulson says, "that they would seek to speak to the journalists and ask them a series of provocative questions that they hoped would motivate the journalists to contact the suspect(s). They proposed having a DNR, or Dialed Number Recorder, warrant to get the numbers the journalists might call after the interview and they also sought approval to physically surveil the journalists."

It's hard to imagine experienced journalists rushing to phone their sources after being approached by detectives looking for those sources. Still, a year had passed with no result and, in 2008, Paulson agreed to some "limited" surveillance.

"I did not approve the DNR," he writes, "because of the intrusiveness of the proposal and the weak reasoning to believe the strategy would work but I did approve the physical surveillance for a limited period providing the interview was non-custodial in nature....ie. voluntary on behalf of the journalists and then only for a short period."

So it was OK to ask them questions and watch what happened — but not to see who they called. For the investigators, this was pointless.

"Not feeling this was a very viable path," Paulson reports, "the investigation was concluded without any surveillance being conducted at all."

So: the whole exercise went nowhere. But could such unapproved spying happen again?

Paulson declines to name the officers involved. "No discipline beyond the documented reprimand was applied," he says.

But how did they manage nine days of surveillance without their superiors knowing about it?

"I think the bigger problem was that their supervisors did know," Paulson responds.

Ouch again. The communications team won't like that, either. But Paulson says those supervisors just didn't expect it to be a problem.

"Frankly," Paulson adds, "I think that the relatively new governance framework and the rigour with which I would apply it was a shift in the paradigm ‎and they all expected the relatively unobtrusive technique of following a person to be approved."

It won't happen again

Not anymore, he says. The approval system is now "entrenched" in national security operations "and woe betide the investigation or investigator that operates without it."

Finally, Paulson says the force does not make a habit of tailing reporters.

"Let me try to reassure you that we don't do a lot of work on journalists. We know and respect the importance of a free and independent press. That said, I think our current policies provide for a very elaborate and comprehensive means of weighing and documenting the analysis of each circumstance in a manner that respects this important feature of our society."

Paulson does not say, however, whether this case was really worth so much effort. It is, after all, about finding who leaked a document suggesting that CSIS claimed to have information — information that may or may not have been accurate. Not much turns on that.

But we now know that the Mounties broke the rules to try, and fail, to get the answer.

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About the Author

Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.