News / Canada

Security bill limits CSIS disruption powers, boosts review of spy services

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says the new National Security and Intelligence Review Agency would keep an eye on intelligence services across government.

Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, make a national security-related announcement at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, make a national security-related announcement at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — The Liberal government's sweeping new security legislation would limit — but not eliminate — controversial powers that allow Canada's spy agency to actively disrupt terror plots.

The long-awaited bill introduced Tuesday pulls back on other elements of legislation ushered in by the Conservatives, charts new paths for Canada's security services in data-crunching and cyberwarfare, and bolsters accountability and review in the often murky world of intelligence.

The 150-page bill, unassumingly entitled, "An act respecting national security matters," follows federal consultations that attracted input from tens of thousands of Canadians.

The government's primary goal with the legislation is to strike a balance between keeping Canadians safe and respecting their rights and freedoms, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told a news conference.

"Canadians unequivocally want accountability, transparency and effectiveness from their security and intelligence agencies," Goodale said. "They also expect compliance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and respect for privacy."

The legislation fleshes out Liberal campaign promises to repeal some elements of a contentious omnibus bill brought in by Stephen Harper's government after a gunman stormed Parliament Hill in October 2014.

In the House of Commons, Goodale came under fire from both sides: the Conservatives accused the Liberals of making things harder for security forces, while the NDP complained they'd not done enough to erase the Harper measures. 

The Conservatives gave the Canadian Security Intelligence Service explicit authority to derail terrorist threats, expanding on the service's traditional intelligence-collection mandate. However, many Canadians expressed concerns that such disruption activities could violate the Constitution.

The Liberal legislation requires CSIS to seek a warrant for any threat reduction measure that would "limit" a right or freedom protected by the charter, and it clarifies that a warrant can only be issued if a judge is satisfied the measure complies with the charter.

The bill amends other elements of the Conservative legislation, tightening provisions on information-sharing among federal agencies, redefining terrorist propaganda and narrowing a general prohibition against promoting terrorism offences to the crime of counselling someone to commit a terrorist offence.

Another change takes aim at the recurring problem of mistaken no-fly list name matches involving youngsters, allowing the public safety minister to inform parents that their child is not on the roster.

In addition, under a revised appeal process, someone's name would be dropped from the no-fly list if the minister does not deal with their appeal within 120 days. However, the minister would be able to extend the deadline before the first 120-day period expires.

The government says the changes are steps toward a longer-term solution to no-fly list headaches.

The bill also modernizes the CSIS Act, setting out in law a regime to authorize spy service actions that would otherwise break the law — modelled on an existing system in the Criminal Code for police.

For example, the regime would apply to counter-terrorism operations, where providing direction to an undercover source infiltrating an extremist cell could be considered illegal without the special permissions.

Other provisions are intended to help CSIS keep pace in the age of Big Data and technological advances that few could have foreseen when the spy service was created in 1984.

CSIS would be required to seek the Federal Court's authorization to keep publicly unavailable datasets that contain personal information largely relating to Canadians.

The bill also proposes allowing the cyberspies of the Communications Security Establishment, Canada's electronic spy agency, to use more advanced methods and techniques to gather intelligence and take action online to defend Canadian networks by halting cyberthreats.

The Ottawa-based CSE, a key player in the global Five Eyes partnership, would also be permitted to help the Canadian Armed Forces with operations.  

A new super-watchdog — the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency — would oversee the intelligence activities of well over a dozen federal agencies, including some, like the Canada Border Services Agency, that have never been subject to such review.

The idea is to ensure a more seamless and comprehensive approach to scrutinizing Canadian security agencies.

Many have complained the current system doesn't work as well as it should because separate watchdogs review CSIS, RCMP security agents and the CSE. The existing watchdogs cannot always freely exchange information or collaborate on reviews — a problem the new, overarching body is intended to solve.

In addition, a new intelligence commissioner would authorize some intelligence and cybersecurity activities in advance. Establishing a commissioner is designed to build public confidence that agencies are operating with respect for Canadian law and values, the government said.

The Liberal bill comes as MPs prepare to head to their ridings for the summer, which means the legislation is unlikely to face serious debate until the fall. 

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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