Wanted: A Canadian Edward Snowden

Jesse Brown explains what CSEC could do to clear the air


Jeff Chiu/AP

Last week, retired judge Robert Decary dropped a bombshell as he ended his stint as watchdog to CSEC, Canada’s electronic surveillance agency. In his final report to Parliament, Decary warned that he was unable to determine whether or not Communications Security Establishment Canada was breaking the law by spying on Canadian citizens.

Here’s what Decary wrote:

“A small number of records suggested the possibility that some activities may have been directed at Canadians, contrary to law. A number of CSEC records relating to these activities were unclear or incomplete. After in-depth and lengthy review, I was unable to reach a definitive conclusion about compliance or non-compliance with the law.”

After a justifiably concerned response in the media, CSEC responded with a written denial:

“The commissioner’s statement about a lack of records is a reference to a single review of a small number of records gathered in the early 2000s, in relation to activities directed at a remote foreign location. This conclusion does not indicate that CSEC has acted unlawfully. It indicates that certain material upon which the commissioner would have relied for his assessment was incomplete or not available for a number of reasons.”

No big deal, right? It’s not as though CSEC was caught spying on Canadians, it’s just that records that would have proven otherwise are missing. It’s not like a lot of records are missing. Just a few! Why are they missing? Oh, “for a number of reasons,” probably too boring or technical to get into. Anyhow, they relate to activities directed at some foreign nation. Which one? Don’t worry, it’s really remote.

Feeling any calmer?

I hope not. CSEC’s defence doesn’t pass the smell test. It has tried to paint itself the victim of media hype, of under-informed reporters overreacting to a minor detail in an otherwise stellar report card. Yet the missing documentation that would have exonerated them of wrongdoing was not a footnote in Decary’s 46-page document, it was the “#1 highlight.” The very role of the CSE commisioner is to provide “independent review of CSEC’s activities to ensure compliance with the law and the protection of privacy of Canadians.” Judge Decary made sure Parliament knew he could not offer them that assurance.

If CSEC wants to clear its name, it could provide the missing information or explain its absence. The fact that it hasn’t done so, or even given us details about just what it is we’re not supposed to worry about, is as much a cause for suspicion as Decary’s report.

Perhaps CSEC hopes we don’t know enough about this to make a big deal out of it.  If so, they may be right. The story has already faded from headlines. Compare it to continued revelations on the NSA’s domestic spying in the U.S., a narrative that continues to unspool. Of course, that story has Edward Snowden, a whistleblower who provided the media with a cabinet of smoking guns.

Snowden was a rogue operative, a lone NSA contractor whose conscience compelled him to speak out on the illegal and immoral things he knew were being done to his fellow citizens. He did so at great personal cost.

If anything similar were happening here, I hope we’d be lucky enough to count on someone like him.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown


Wanted: A Canadian Edward Snowden

  1. I just Tweeted the link to this article to Glenn Greenwald. Canadian journalists could learn a big lesson from him. The first being to ask questions and the second not to shut up about it.

    Excellent article Jesse.

  2. From the number of comments on this article, I would say “Also Wanted, Canadians who care about their privacy. Canadians who “get it”.

  3. As I understand it, CSEC is allowed to collect intelligence on Canadians inside or outside Canada, as long as it’s working with CSIS. Is that correct? In that case, they may not have broken the law, but are participating in a ridiculous charade.

    I agree that a Canadian Snowden would be priceless. Funny, I can’t even imagine our security overlords or our politicians giving a single inch on this file without some dramatic embarrassing information leak.

    “It indicates that certain material upon which the commissioner would have relied for his assessment was incomplete or not available for a number of reasons.”

    Remember when Attawapiskat was put under third-party management when some of its financial records were incomplete or not available for a number of reasons? Sure do wish we could put CSEC under third-party management, since its current management is a complete joke.

  4. Hey Jesse, I may have won the lottery as well. I have a couple of numbers, I think, but you know the Lottery Corp never, ever tells the truth so their employees can keep winning. I need an insider in the Lottery Corp to come clean for me because otherwise I’m never going to know for sure.

    Vague, unverified comments do not a scandal make and are hardly “…a bombshell…”. I’m sure if someone were to ask to review all of your documentation for the last 13 years of your life, one or two things would be vague or unclear enough to raise a question or two that you’d only be able to explain by saying, “Oh…no, that’s actually…”

  5. I don’t think abuses can be inferred from the current evidence. Yes, the CSE should be more forthcoming about that #1 thing in the report. Yes, the PM should say something. But the questions are really:

    a) Has the CSE been doing “collect it all” on Canadians, like the NSA on Americans?

    b) If not, has the CSE been complicit in outsourcing “collect it all” to the NSA (as one of the Five Eyes)?

    If either of those things are true, it means the end of the CSE as we’ve known it. But if neither of those things are true, then basically we have the version of the CSE that we want.

    I mean, ideally we could stop the Americans from collecting everything on all Canadians, but even if they do we have the advantage of sovereignty: that’s why it’s much worse for the Americans that the NSA should collect everything on them than that the Chinese should do it. (Our government is a tad more compliant towards the USA than the USA is towards China, but the key point is judicial independence.)

  6. …And, Jesse, you also hope that someone would hand it over to you for a news coup? Don’t forget that it has been CSE in cooperation with other international agencies, that has stopped several nascent terror plots in their tracks. Doing what normal police activity cannot do. Or… we can dispense with the nasty CSE and hope that our luck holds out — or that other nations’ similar organizations will look after our interests.

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