For months, the story of ‘Chinese interference’ has been building in the press and Ottawa. The latest public revelations have kicked off a firestorm. The NDP and Conservatives were competing to be the loudest voices calling for a public inquiry.
Over several weeks last month, allegations over China’s interference in Canadian elections reached a fever pitch. Global News published an article accusing Liberal MP Han Dong of advising China, through the Chinese Consulate in Toronto, not to release Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who were detained in China at the time. This story came just weeks after another Global News story published a story accusing Dong of being a “witting affiliate in China’s election interference networks” and alleging that China interfered on behalf of 10 other unnamed candidates in the 2019 election. The Globe and Mail published a story on February 17 accusing China of working to elect a Liberal minority government and defeating candidates hostile to China.
At the heart of the story about Chinese interference in Canadian elections is the Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS). CSIS agents are the unnamed sources that make up the entire Global News story. The sole evidence cited in the Globe and Mail story about election interference in 2021 is a classified CSIS report. The CSIS narrative seems to contradict the independent commission’s findings that no substantive interference occurred and that the RCMP stated, “We are not investigating any elements from the 2019 or the 2021 elections. We did not receive any actionable intelligence that would warrant us to initiate a criminal investigation.”
A look at the history of CSIS, and its troubled relationship with the truth and democracy should make us deeply skeptical about any claims they are advancing about Chinese interference in Canada’s elections. This history also shows the real threat to our democracy: CSIS.
The formation of CSIS
CSIS was formed in 1984 through the passage of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act. CSIS was created as a civilian security intelligence service to replace the disgraced Security Service of the RCMP. The widespread abuses by the RCMP’s Security Services provoked calls for a parliamentary commission to investigate it. The McDonald Commission, launched in 1977, issued its report to Parliament in 1981, recommending the termination of the RCMP’s Security Services and replacing it with a civilian-led security intelligence service.
These recommendations were supposed to offer greater oversight of security services and prevent future abuses. But the McDonald Commission’s whitewashing of the record of blatant criminality in the RCMP Security Services did not portend well for the accountability of CSIS.
Air India bombing
Less than a year after its creation CSIS was wrapped up in the Air India bombing incident. In June 1985, Flight 182, departing from Montreal and heading to London, was destroyed over the Atlantic Ocean by a bomb, killing all 329 people on board. Today the bombing is largely seen as carried out by a Sikh extremist group in response to the brutal repression of the Sikh community in India in the early 1980s. The suspected architect of the plot, Talwinder Parmar was gunned down by the police in India in 1992.
While much is still unknown about the Air India bombing, it’s clear that CSIS knew of the plot beforehand and failed to act. They had multiple informants and one of the ringleaders under surveillance, and even observed them test run the bomb. One of the suspects in the bombing plot, Surjan Singh Gill, was revealed to be a CSIS agent.
But the investigation into the bombing was mishandled from the start. One of the most disturbing parts of this story is the destruction of wiretap evidence by CSIS. Of the 210 wiretaps recorded during the months before and after the bombing, 156 were erased. Some, including the RCMP, suspect that CSIS did not actually destroy the tapes. According to some explanations, the spy agency claimed the destruction of the tapes to protect their sources and known agents.
A Commission of Inquiry into the Air India bombing lambasted security services as having failed on a number front, preventing the disaster and bungling the investigation. It is clear in retrospect that CSIS didn’t just mishandle information; they were knee-deep in the plot and destroyed evidence to hide that fact.
In 1988, CSIS recruited a private investigator, Grant Bristow, as an undercover agent in Operation Bristow. Bristow forged relationships with people on the Canadian far-right, specifically around the Nationalist Party of Canada. Bristow and others on the right of the party broke off to form the Heritage Front, an overtly fascist organization. From the beginning, Bristow was one of the leaders of the Front, helping to organize its actions and recruit members. Not only did CSIS support this, but they provided vital funding to the Front that helped pay for their hotline, their main recruitment method. He also used CSIS funds to bring prominent American neo-nazi Tom Metzger for a speaking engagement in Canada.
Bristow was one of the main drivers of the Front’s harassment of anti-racist activists. He helped train Front members to find their opponents’ phone numbers and addresses. When Elisa Hategan, recruited to the Front in 1991, turned away from those politics and started to inform on the front, CSIS coordinated a campaign to discredit her to protect Bristow.
The media eventually unearthed Bristow’s ties to CSIS. No charges of Front members were ever tied to evidence collected by Bristow or CSIS.
Spying on workers
In 2000, another former undercover CSIS agent, John Farrell, revealed the extent of CSIS’ dirty trick operations conducted in Canada. Farrell began his relationship with CSIS in 1990. They helped get him a job as a postal inspector, smoothing over his criminal record when he applied for the job.
As a paid CSIS agent, he coordinated other postal inspectors to spy on the union, read the mail of union activists and even inspect their garbage. Farrell also engaged in intercepting mail of other national security targets as well the mail of their neighbours. Farrell described how the extent of the mail intercepts grew so large they had to hire a third-party firm to help intercept the mail. Farrell’s revelations also included breaking into vehicles of former CSIS agents who they suspected of whistleblowing and funnelling funds for other collegiate activities. Farrell admitted to illegally breaking into mailboxes and homes and planting listening devices in postal stations to spy on workers.
Farrell’s revelation of rampant spying on national security targets, their neighbours and union activists followed a 1994 report in the Journal de Québec about CSIS spying on postal workers during the 1991 strike on behalf of management. This closeness between Canada Post management and CSIS showed the deep links between the bosses and the state. It is also known that other unions such as the CSN in Quebec were infiltrated by CSIS agents: in that case by Marc-André Boivin was involved in making bomb threats in 1988 during a hotel strike.
War and Islamophobia
After the 9/11 attacks in the US, the Canadian government dramatically increased the budgets of CSIS, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), and the RCMP. Their expanded budget and staffing levels followed suit with an expanded mandate for spying and data collection. They used their new powers and influence in very reactionary ways, fueling war and terrorizing the Muslim community.
In the lead-up to the 2003 war on Iraq, CSIS fed the government false intelligence about the capabilities and motives of the Iraqi government. They produced “intelligence reports” which claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that he was aiming to acquire nuclear weapons. These claims, which mirrored the highly politized intelligence reports in the US, were false. But CSIS pushed this false intelligence, which was at odds with almost every other Canadian analyst, in the hopes of pressuring the government to join the invasion.
Almost immediately following 9/11 CSIS ramped up its sustained and mass spying and harassment program on the Muslim community in Canada. CSIS routinely showed up to mosques, recorded the names of people in attendance, showed up to people’s houses and schools, and threatened to show up at people’s workplaces. CSIS routinely hacked phones, emails and social media of Muslim community members. They targeted religious leaders in the community, and in particular targeted Muslim community members who engaged in political activism–creating a chilling effect on political expression.
The sustained and mass surveillance of the Muslim community was not just done from afar. CSIS cultivated a network of informers, often by coercing or threatening people. There are numerous documented incidents of CSIS agents threatening people’s immigration status if they refuses to become an informant. A typical CSIS tactic was to deny or delay people’s access to a lawyer. They also routinely engaged in entrapment.
CSIS’ played a large role cultivating Islamophobia. They treated the Muslim community as a threat, and they operated with little to no accountability.
Rendition and torture
As part of the war on terror, Project O Canada was created to coordinate a security response in Toronto by different wings of the security services and police. The head of CSIS in Toronto, Jack Hooper played an instrumental role. Project O Canada and its evolving iterations were at the centre of the rendition scandal.
Project O Canada and its Ottawa counterpart early on labelled Muslim men such as Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El-Maati and Muayyed Nureddin, and Maher Arar as imminent threats and members of terrorist groups. They were subjected to surveillance and had their homes searched. Almalki, who was travelling during the search, had his travel itinerary leaked to the CIA, who turned it over to Syrian officials, where he was visiting his sick mother. He was arrested, detained and tortured. Arar, who knew Almalki, was detained by the INS on information provided for by the RCMP during a visit to the United States in 2002. He was then deported to Syria, where he was tortured. Hooper later confirmed CSIS knew exactly what the result of the Canadian security services disclosure to the US would mean:”I think the United States would like to get Arar to Jordan where they can have their way with him.”
CSIS wanted to keep Arar in Syria, because there was not enough evidence to detain him in Canada. CSIS also supplied the Canadian ambassador to Syria with questions to be delivered to Syrian officials who were torturing Arar, Almalki, El-Maati, and Nureddin. CSIS was, in effect, using torture.
None of the people who were renditioned or subject of the Project O Canada surveillance were ever proved to have any links to terrorist organizations. The evidence against the individuals was the product of racial profiling and the known use of confessions obtained under torture. No officials have ever been held to account for this ugly incident.
Spying on land defenders and dissenters
CSIS, throughout its history, has routinely spied on protest movements. Most recently, it has been revealed that CSIS has been systematically spying on Indigenous activists and land defenders. In 2019 the B.C. Civil Liberties Association released thousands of redacted documents from CSIS that showed they had systematically spied on protesters who opposed the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project. CSIS retained information on hundreds of individuals in collaboration with oil and gas companies. CSIS not only received information from corporations about protesters, but it also shared intelligence with those companies. CSIS had regular meetings with members of the petroleum industry. The Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), which is supposed to operate as an oversight committee of CSIS, has deep ties to the oil and gas sector.
In 2019 and 2020, Wet’suwet’en led protests against the Coastal GasLink pipeline were heating up, and CSIS was watching. CSIS labelled Indigenous activists and others who engaged in blockades as “ideologically motivated violent extremists“. This meant they could be seen as a national security threat and subject to state surveillance.
This spying on First Nations activists and land defenders is not new but arises from CSIS’ view that its job is to protect “critical infrastructure” projects such as mining and oil and gas developments. CSIS spies on activists, shares this info with corporations and also engages in routine intimidation of activists because, ultimately, CSIS role is to protect the interest of capital.
The spying on activists is not limited to Indigenous land defenders and environmental groups. Right from its inception, CSIS continued the RCMP spying operations on peace groups and left-wing organizations of all stripes. It has systematically spied on the Tamil, Kurdish and Palestinian communities. Any expression of dissent and threat to the national corporate agenda in Canada is liable to brand a group or an individual as a potential threat and subject them to CSIS’ spying.
Breaking the law
The war on terror empowered CSIS. In the two decades that followed the federal government has aimed to decrease oversight while giving CSIS even more powers. The Harper government cut the Office of the Inspector General, one of the oversight bodies for CSIS. And, in reality, Parliament’s Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) provides no oversight. The Harper Conservatives also passed the expansive Bill C-51, which gave CSIS and other security services sweeping new powers to detain and surveil suspects as well as and define terrorist activity. While the Liberals rolled back some of these new powers, they left many in place.
In 2006 CSIS created the Operational Data Analysis Centre (ODAC). Through the ODAC they collected not only the data of individuals targeted by CSIS surveillance but also the data of anyone who interacted with them. This massive data collection of mostly third-party individuals was kept hidden from the public and courts for nearly ten years. In 2016 the courts ruled the ODAC was an illegal spying program and that CSIS was breaking the law. Despite the court findings, CSIS continued to harvest data to spy on Canadians illegally.
In 2020, it was again revealed by a watchdog group that CSIS was illegally using peoples’ digital geolocation data without a warrant. Also, in 2020, a federal court released a judgement that found that CSIS was routinely engaging in illegal operational activity. Justice Gleeson found not only a pattern of illegal activity by CSIS but that they also had routinely lied to courts. CSIS was found to have obtained warrants based on known illegal activities.
CSIS not only has engaged in systematic illegal spying, but it has also aimed to rewrite Canada’s history by destroying hundreds of thousands of files relating to the RCMPs sustained illegal activities in the Cold War era. The RCMP spied on activists and politicians such as Tommy Douglas, John Diefenbaker, Lester Pearson and David Lewis. These files were destroyed in 1989 without any credible reason in what can only be assumed as to protect the interest of the security state.
Since its creation in 1984, Canada’s spy agency has repeatedly used illegal means to spy on people in Canada. It has lied to the courts, destroyed evidence, and engaged in entrapment and rendition. It has fomented Islamophobia using its vast resources to violate the rights of the Muslim community en masse. At every turn CSIS has used its powers to further the interests of capital and the state. From Indigenous land defenders to union activists, there is no right they are not willing to violate, no law they are not ready to break.
CSIS is the single most anti-democratic institution in Canada. Its claim that China is interfering in Canada’s democratic process is more than a little rich. The unaccountable and secret nature of CSIS claims of foreign interference should raise alarm bells. Ratcheting up tensions and empowering CSIS will simply prime the pump for anti-Asian racism and empower CSIS to erode our democracy further. It is CSIS, not China, which is attempting to usurp our elections by claiming the results are the product of foreign interference. It is CSIS which has created this cauldron of racism and suspicion, all too reminiscent of McCarthyism. If we want to point fingers at who has undermined democracy in Canada, we have to start with CSIS.
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