OTTAWA — The head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service says he wants to make sure everyone understands the spy service did not deliberately do anything wrong when it kept potentially revealing electronic data about people who posed no security threat.
“CSIS recognizes the importance of maintaining public trust and confidence in its activities,” its director, Michel Coulombe, said in a statement issued Sunday.
The statement was an unusual step for the head of the spy agency, which characterized it partly as a response to the media coverage that followed a Federal Court decision released publicly last week, when Justice Simon Noel ruled CSIS had violated the law by keeping the personal data over a 10-year period.
Coulombe said he wanted to reiterate that the data was collected legally using warrants and that the spy agency, in consultation with the Justice Department, had interpreted the CSIS Act in a way that allowed it to retain the data in the way it did.
“The Federal Court has disagreed with this interpretation and we accept their decision. I would like to make it clear that the Service was not knowingly exceeding the scope of the CSIS Act,” Coulombe wrote.
The judge said that in 2006, CSIS began processing the data, using a powerful program known as the Operational Data Analysis Centre to produce intelligence that is able to reveal specific, intimate details about people.
The materials he found to have been improperly retained was metadata — information associated with a communication, such as a telephone number or email address, but not the actual message — and it is believed to have included data trails related to people such as friends or relatives who knew the targets of surveillance but were not themselves under investigation.
The ruling means CSIS can now only keep and use metadata if it relates to a specific threat to Canadian security, or if it is of use to an investigation, prosecution, national defence or foreign affairs.
Coulombe said he wanted to respond to the “apparent perception” that CSIS developed and made use of the program without letting key government players know.
He said two former public safety ministers — Stockwell Day, in July 2006, and Vic Toews, in March 2010 _ were briefed on the program and CSIS had also shared information over the years with the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the federal privacy commissioner and the inspector general of CSIS.
But, Coulombe said, those briefings might not have provided the whole picture as outlined by the court.
“Given the Service and Department of Justice interpretation that the activity in question was within the scope of the CSIS Act, these briefings may not have specifically addressed the retention of the subset of associated data on which the Court has now ruled,” Coulombe said.
“The intent of the Service, however, was to ensure key stakeholders were aware of (the Operational Data Analysis Centre), its capabilities, and intentions around retention,” Coulombe said.
In his pointed ruling, Noel said that CSIS had breached its duty to inform the court of its data-collection program, since the information was gathered using judicial warrants.
Coulombe said he agrees “this was a significant omission,” but said it was not done on purpose.
“At no point did CSIS deliberately seek to withhold this information from the court, and the court acknowledged that there is no evidence to suggest CSIS did,” he said.
Coulombe said last Thursday the spy service had halted all access to, and analysis of, the data in question while it reviews the court decision.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale welcomed the decision and said the government would not appeal.
“A serious error has been made,” Goodale said Friday as he noted that Coulombe was of the view that CSIS was within the law.
“The court has now said very clearly and unequivocally that it was not. This situation needs to be remedied. It needs to be remedied quickly,” Goodale said.
Goodale also said a federal security review would consider whether CSIS should be able to have the legal authority to keep and analyze the kind of metadata referred to in the court decision.