CSISs alternative facts universe

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canadas spy agency, penned a marvellous multimedia love letter to itself with the release late last month of its first public report in two years.

But beyond its self-admiring gaze, fancy charts and awkward introductory video by spy chief Michel Coulombe (who announced his retirement this week), the agencys report to Parliament is most notable for its alternative facts and timing. The reports incendiary language invokes an immediate threat and paths to radicalization, and its release coincides with the agencys lobbying for increased funding in 2017 as well as efforts to prevent abolition or amendments to the infamous Anti-terrorism Act (C-51).

Notably absent from the report is the spy agencys take on the Quebec City mosque shootings or a nuanced analysis of the rise of white nationalist extremism in Canada. Instead, CSIS stresses the notion that Canadians are under constant threat from forces associated with Daesh, al Qaeda and their distant offshoots, even though the claim is not borne out by the supporting evidence offered.

Indeed, the reports formidable-looking terrorism timeline graphic cheats on the numbers.

Of the nine attacks listed, six occurred overseas, where Canadians were not directly targeted but tragically died as a result of happenstance. Two attacks in 2014 were already addressed in the previous public report. With nothing to report for all of 2015, that left one remaining 2016 incident in which three soldiers suffered minor stab wounds at a North York military recruiting centre, a crime committed by a man found unfit for trial due to the ongoing psychotic symptoms of a major mental illness.

Remarkably, the most deadly terrorist attack to occur in Canada in the last decade Januarys Quebec City mosque massacre, carried out by a shooter with white nationalist leanings goes unmentioned, even though Prime Minister Trudeau explicitly described it as a terrorist attack against Muslims. The 2014 murder of three New Brunswick RCMP officers by anti-government gun fanatic Justin Bourque is also nowhere to be found in CSISs report.

Despite the agencys internal documents acknowledging the growing threat of right-wing extremism and the emergence of a homegrown anti-Islam movement, Canadas spies prefer to surveil and demonize those who are more likely to be victims of terrorist attacks, conflating refugees with threats to Canada and its interests. The report claims right-wing extremism has not been as significant a problem in Canada in recent years, despite the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Societys widely reported finding that between 1990 and 2014, 59 per cent of lone wolf terror attacks in Canada were committed by white supremacists.

Indeed, the Network (whose research partners include CSIS and Public Safety Canada) published in September 2015 a rigorous academic study by Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens concluding that the right-wing extremist movement in Canada is more extensive and more active than public rhetoric would suggest.

Their report notes the existence of more than 100 such groups in Canada, some of which were actively engaged in brutal acts of violence directed at an array of targets that included Muslims, Jews, Indigenous people, LGBTQ community members and people of colour such as Afro-Canadians, Asians and South Asians.

Significantly, their research confirms that a key factor enabling the emergence and sustainability of right-wing groups was a weak law enforcement response.

Typically, activities of the far-right have not been monitored or taken seriously, the report says, and there was a tendency for officials to deny or trivialize the presence and threat.

CSIS prefers to stick with the tired trope that all terrorism springs from internecine bloodletting in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts and Middle Eastern-based groups intent on undermining Canadian values.

The spectre of Muslim youth radicalized in Canada by online beheading videos remains CSISs top priority. The agency claims that approximately 180 individuals with a nexus to Canada have been suspected of engaging in terrorism-related activities, of whom 60 were extremist travellers who had returned to Canada.

But even here, the numbers present a distorted picture. By failing to differentiate between front-line fighters and those engaged in non-combat activities, from medical assistance to food preparation, CSIS creates the false impression that those who returned to Canada are all in sleeper cells waiting to be activated.

Public Safety concedes that some 20 per cent of extremist travellers are women (unlikely to be assigned combat duty), and that children have gone abroad with parents as well.

The spy agency has also remained mum on whether the numbers include non-Muslim Canadian fighters who very publicly fundraise and volunteer to fight for non-Daesh actors like the Kurdish Peshmerga, who have been accused by Amnesty International of committing war crimes in the razing of northern Iraq Arab villages.

The slippery relationship with reality that marks CSISs report is also reflected in Coulombes recognition of the importance of openness and transparency with the Federal Court. This noble sentiment fails to address numerous Federal Court decisions, including one as recent as October 2016 that criticized a breach of the CSISs duty of candour to the court. In that case, CSIS had failed to fully inform judges of a decade-long program illegally collecting and retaining information on Canadians who posed no threat.

There is no indication that anyone behind the walls of the secretive east-end Ottawa edifice that houses CSIS headquarters has been held accountable for illegally obtaining confidential taxpayer information, spying on Canadians held in foreign prisons or trading and receiving information that may lead to or has been gleaned from torture.

The lack of accountability structures for such misbehaviour enables and emboldens CSIS to continue operating with impunity.

But those looking to rein in Canadas spies are not hopeful.

The Liberals Bill C-22, to create a Parliamentary committee to oversee national security, has been criticized by the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG), which last week raised concerns about the broad powers granted to ministers to block investigations, limitations on committee members access to information, and the committee being responsible solely to the Prime Minister [leading the committee to become] a figurehead, unable to adequately carry out the oversight it is mandated to do.

While the ICLMG adds that any such committee must be complemented by an independent, expert review body [that] would encompass all of Canadas national security activities, CSIS head Coulombe is sanguine about maintaining the status quo, ending his report by stating: Canadians can rest assured that we undertake this work with the utmost respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms that we seek to protect.

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