Canada Oblivious To Terror Danger: CSIS Boss

Canada oblivious to terror danger: CSIS boss
New director takes aim at critics in first public speech

By Ian MacLeod
The Ottawa Citizen
October 30, 2009

CSIS head Richard B. Fadden says security and rights are 'not in opposition, but are intertwined like DNA stands.'

Despite a history of domestic terrorism, from Air India to the Toronto 18, Canada has a “serious blind spot” acknowledging that violent extremism imperils our national security, says the new head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

In his first public speech since becoming Canada's spy master this summer, Richard B. Fadden wasted no time Thursday railing against those he believes ignore, minimize and even applaud terrorism and the people caught up in it, while portraying government efforts to combat extremism as assaults on liberty.

“Almost any attempt to fight terrorism by the government is portrayed as an overreaction or an assault on liberty. It is a peculiar position, given that terrorism is the ultimate attack on liberties,” Fadden told an Ottawa conference of about 300 security and intelligence specialists.

In advocating for a more mature, nuanced debate on national security, Fadden directed his harshest comments at news media, a “loose partnership of single-issue NGOs, advocacy journalists and lawyers,” and Canadians who naively believe, “our charm and the Maple Leaf on our backpacks are all that we need to protect us.

“Why … are those accused of terrorist offences often portrayed in media as quasi-folk heroes, despite the harsh statements of numerous judges? Why are they always photographed with their children, given tender-hearted profiles, and more or less taken at their word when they accuse CSIS or other government agencies of abusing them?

“I … am not arguing that those accused of offences should be portrayed as guilty,” Fadden added. “In fact, a more balanced presentation is what I am hoping for.”

Instead, he said, accused terrorists are routinely portrayed as too unsophisticated, ill-prepared or youthful to actually commit such heinous acts. That theme, “permeates a fair amount of the coverage of those charged in the Toronto plot.

“I seriously doubt, however, whether editors would allow this kind of reasoning to be used in news coverage of those accused of murder or robbery.”

He said a “loose partnership of single-issue NGOs, advocacy journalists and lawyers … has succeeded, to a certain extent, in forging a positive public image for anyone accused of terrorist links or charges.

“It sometimes seems that to be accused of having terrorist connections in Canada has become a status symbol, a badge of courage in the struggle against the real enemy, which would appear to be, at least sometimes, the government. To some members of civil society, there is a certain romance to this.”

Terrorism, he said, is often portrayed not as a real crime, but as a political one.

“Terror is downgraded to a form of dissent, an act of revolutionary charm rather than a Criminal Code offence and a violation of international human rights standards. Much of the coverage of the trials of those charged in Toronto has reflected this approach. Perhaps this has roots in the belief that Canada is somehow immune from terror, and therefore can't really have any terrorist conspiracies.”

Furthermore, unless a bomb explodes or a murder is committed in the name of terrorism, “it seems like the act of plotting to commit a terrorist act, or financing terrorist groups, or travelling abroad to train in terrorist camps are note considered criminal acts or at the very least, reprehensible activities.”

Perhaps, Fadden said, it's simply an ideological stance taken by certain commentators that they have never really examined: “a mental strait-jacket from which they simply can't escape.

“But I have to ask bluntly: can those who downplay the seriousness of terrorism claim to be protecting our civil liberties? Judges presiding in the trials of terrorism suspects have not followed this reasoning at all.

“Terrorist offences are the most vile form of criminal conduct. They are abnormal crimes … They attack the very fabric of Canada's democratic ideals … Their object is to strike fear and terror into citizens in a way not seen in other criminal offences.”

He admitted those working in national security were not immune to this, “Manichaean, black-and-white” thinking as well. The debate about national security in Canada and other countries, “has often been unsatisfying because it is shackled to one rigid but persistent construct: that security and human rights are always in opposition, that they are a balancing act of sorts.

“I would argue, however, that security is a human right. Security and rights are not in opposition, but are intertwined like DNA strands. Together they form part of the genetic code of modern citizenship. People around the world yearn for both civil liberties and security, and have a right to both. People come to Canada to enjoy a high level of political, economic and religious freedom. They also come to Canada to avoid the impunity and arbitrary limits on those freedoms that are, sadly, commonplace in many parts of the globe. Security and human rights are not matter and anti-matter. They are compatible, and inseparable.”

Switching issues, Fadden said Canada's “turbulent legal environment,” with increased emphasis in individual rights and freedoms through legislation, legal trends and evolving jurisprudence was changing the way CSIS operated.

“The legal ground has shifted under our feet, and this tenuous new environment has had profound implications on how we work at every level.”

When the service was created in 1984, it had a single legal counsel. Today, there are 26 counsel and 18 support staff. In all, 80 CSIS employees are focused on legal issues.

On a related front, Fadden recalled the service's dilemma in the recent security certificate case of suspected terrorist Adil Charkaoui. A Federal Court this month killed the government's case against the Montreal man after government lawyers refused to reveal their detailed evidence against him, citing national security concerns.

The disclosure demand, “pushed us beyond what we could accept,” Fadden said. “We were faced with a pretty fundamental dilemma: to disclose information that would have given would-be terrorists a virtual road map to our tradecraft and sources; or to withdraw that information from the case, causing a security certificate to collapse.

“We chose the path that would cause the least long-term damage to Canada and withdrew the information. We did this because an intelligence agency that cannot protect its sources and tradecraft cannot be credible or effective.”