Colleagues talking during a meeting.

Déjà Vu for Canada’s Security Intelligence Service

John Gilmour · Former member (retired) of Canada's intelligence and national security community · Posted: June 24, 2020

One of the outcomes of the 9/11 attacks was that many countries, Canada included, were obliged to shift the focus of their respective counter-terrorism (CT) strategies and programs from being based on after-the-fact responses, as is the case for most criminal investigations, to being pre-emptive in nature. The objective was to stop attacks before they actually occurred. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was, and remains, a key agency in the implementation of this country’s counter-terrorism strategy.

CSIS’ statutory authorities and mandate allows that individuals suspected of engaging in terrorist activities, as defined in the Canadian Security Intelligence Act, and subsequently defined in more detail in  Canada’s Criminal Code, can be placed under surveillance (physically, and in some cases electronically), interviewed, and evaluated to ascertain the level of risk they pose in undertaking, or facilitating, terrorist attacks. Resulting CSIS intelligence leads are then distributed to a number of government agencies, one of which is the RCMP.  The RCMP, in turn, decides if the information provided by CSIS supports an independent, RCMP-led criminal investigation. This is because CSIS does not, I repeat-does not- have any law-enforcement powers, including the power to arrest or detain individuals. That falls to the RCMP.

One outcome of CSIS’ efforts in support of broader pre-emptive strategies, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and beyond, is that it has been accused of focussing its efforts against certain communities, specifically persons of Arab descent or of the Muslim faith. Given the ideological foundations and regional hot-spots behind jihadist-based violence that originally resulted in attacks that were externally planned and operationalized (e.g. 9/11) but that now more commonly serve as catalysts for radicalization, at first blush this charge is hard to refute. And ironically, one of the knocks against the Cross Cultural Round Table on Security, established as part of the Canada’s national security policy (2004) to “focus on emerging developments in national security matters and their impact on Canada's diverse and pluralistic society”, was that top-heavy representation by Muslim communities was an indirect admission that they were indeed being singled out.  

So given the current environment, I would like to take this opportunity to repeat how the Service has responded to these charges. It is simply this: that CSIS CT targets are individuals, (albeit probably linked to a terrorist group in some fashion if even only ideologically) whose nefarious activities are sufficient, and proven, to meet established and defined thresholds that warrant characterizing them as a ‘target’ within Service nomenclature. To do so takes both time and clearly documented paper trails to establish.  This is more the case where court-authorized warrants are required when more “intrusive” investigative methods are necessary.  More often than not, potential targets are identified through their established associations with already known targets.  Consequently, a person determined to meet the threshold of being listed as a target so defined could be white, black, red, yellow, purple or orange. While ideology or specific acts linked to terrorism are referenced in the CSIS Act  or Criminal Code, and serve as the impetus behind CSIS CT investigations, race and ethnicity are not, for obvious Charter reasons. 

Oversight of CSIS also serves to suggest that targeting of a specific group would be institutionally challenging. The recently released 2019 CSIS Public Report reflects that “robust oversight and accountability mechanisms are so fundamental” to the conduct of the organization. The report identifies the Service is accountable to some fifteen plus agencies, organizations and institutions for reasons of oversight and accountability. The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) and National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) are key agencies in the fulfillment of the Service’s statutory review function, with the former having a mandate to adjudicate grievances against the Service presented to that body by both groups and individuals. While the need for oversight and accountability is driven largely by the nature of CSIS’ need to operate ‘in secret’ and how this may at times butt up against western liberal norms and values, clearly, the argument can be made it also provides for a sufficient number of established third-party, independent avenues of redress should either groups or individuals feel somehow disadvantaged as a result of CSIS’ day-to-day activities. I am personally not aware of any persons being charged with terrorist offences having their cases dismissed for reasons of bias on the part of national security agencies. For my own education, I welcome the opportunity to be corrected on that fact. 

There have been well-publicized cases where CSIS employees, not targets of investigations, have identified they were subject to forms of unacceptable  conduct by other Service employees. These actions were acknowledged as being unacceptable and inconsistent with Service values.

In a nutshell, I suggest that the institutionally engrained operational checks and thresholds imposed on CSIS officers on a day-to-day basis, together with broader judicial, oversight and accountability obligations imposed on the Service via legislation, has provided, and will continue to provide, sufficient evidence that CSIS conducts its mandate in support of broader CT strategies, strictly on the basis of the facts.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Professional Development Institute of the University of Ottawa.



John Gilmour joins the PDI team after a thirty-seven year career in the federal government in positions of growing responsibility. His initial professional experience was with Transport Canada and the management of Canada’s major international airports. This  included serving as project manager and analyst for airport security programs. This led to a two-year assignment to the Security and Intelligence (Operations) section of the Privy Council office as a senior policy analyst, in support of the office of the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister (NSA). 

From there John joined the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), where he served in a variety of branches, most recently as the Head-Strategic Planning and Operational Analysis with the Service’s Counter Terrorism Division.  Although retiring in 2018 from the Service, John continues to be retained as a senior advisor for that  unit.

John has a BA from Carleton University (Ottawa), and a Masters and Ph.D from the War Studies Program of the Royal Military College of Canada (Kingston).

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