Jim Bronskill, Ottawa (Canadian Press) – Canada’s top spy has rejected a call from a federal watchdog for more scrutiny of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s human rights record.
In a newly declassified memo, CSIS director Dick Fadden dismisses the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s recommendation that national security agencies do more to ensure they are not taking part in racial profiling or other objectionable practices.
“I am confident in the service’s existing human rights policies and procedures, as well as our accountability and review structures,” Fadden says in the January 2012 memo to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
“We have taken aggressive proactive steps to prevent discrimination and profiling in the service, and our investigation and reporting are pursued to protect Canadians and not out of any discriminatory bias.”
The memo — initially classified secret — was provided to The Canadian Press by Mike Larsen, a criminology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, who obtained it under the Access to Information Act.
Fadden’s memo came two months after the human rights commission tabled a special report to Parliament urging the government to bring in legislative amendments that would underline the importance of respect for human rights in the policies and operations of CSIS, the RCMP and other security agencies.
The changes would also require each organization to have a human rights accountability structure in place that would enable it to gather data, measure performance and take action to improve. In addition, the security agencies would have to report publicly and regularly on their human rights records.
“The effectiveness of these organizations depends in part on their capacity to earn and maintain the trust of the general public,” the commission’s report says. “Respect for human rights is not just a legal obligation; it is critical to earning that trust.
“Analysis of a decade of research clearly shows that there are no means to assess the human rights performance of Canada’s national security organizations.”
The report notes that concerns have been raised about the profiling of individuals in the post-9-11 era, and that specific cases have linked Canadian officials and security organizations to the abuse of Canadians’ rights at the hands of governments in other countries.
For instance, a federal inquiry concluded that Ottawa telecommunications engineer Maher Arar suffered torture in a Syrian prison likely as a result of flawed information the RCMP passed to the United States. The inquiry prompted numerous changes within federal security agencies.
In an interview, Larsen said the publication of data about the ethnicity and citizenship of people interviewed by CSIS would increase transparency.
In his memo, Fadden insists CSIS is already subject to a “rigorous accountability and review regime.”
The Public Safety Department echoed his position, saying in a statement that Canada has very strong judicial oversight of national security activities conducted by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
“While the department has not officially responded to the report, legislation and policies enacted by the government of Canada are done so in strict accordance with the Constitution, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the full range of human rights and privacy legislation that exists in Canada.”
The department also noted there are review bodies that keep an eye on CSIS, the RCMP and the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s electronic eavesdropping agency.
The human rights commission had no immediate comment on the federal statement.
However, in its report, the commission says the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which monitors CSIS, and the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP deal with human rights issues only “on an ad hoc basis.”
“This approach does not provide a comprehensive look at potential human rights trends or issues.”
The Conservative government recently abolished the inspector general of CSIS, an independent watchdog that served as the “eyes and ears” of the public safety minister regarding the intelligence service’s activities.
The government says the inspector general’s former duties will be assumed by the intelligence review committee. Critics say the move will result in less scrutiny of CSIS.
CSIS accountability is becoming “less robust rather than more robust,” said Larsen.
“It’s an alarming direction.”