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Canada’s top spy agencies work out deal on ‘threat disruption’ operations

OTTAWA– Canada’s two most powerful intelligence agencies have crafted a formal deal to cooperate on using controversial powers to disrupt domestic threats to the country’s security, the Star has learned.

Documents obtained by the Star show the spy agency Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the electronic signals-gathering agency Communications Security Establishment (CSE) signed an agreement in July 2016 on how CSE will assist with “threat reduction” activities.

For example, if CSIS were to jam electronic communications, thwart a suspected terrorist’s travel plans or financing efforts, or crash a group’s or individual’s website, it would notify CSE it was intending to act.

The power to actively intervene to disrupt threats to Canadian national security, rather than simply collect information on them, was granted to CSIS in the previous Conservative government’s contentious anti-terrorism law, Bill C-51.

The legislation allows CSIS to actively disrupt perceived threats to national security, with few limits to the power except obtaining a warrant. The agreement with CSE allows for the combination of CSIS’s expertise in human intelligence and field work with the technical sophistication of Canada’s premier electronic intelligence agency.

But while CSIS has already used that new power approximately two dozen times, the Star has learned the agency put a halt to at least some disruption activities since the Liberals took power in November, 2015.

CSIS has the power to collect intelligence on Canadian citizens who are deemed a threat to national security whether they are on Canadian soil or abroad. On the other hand, CSE is explicitly prohibited from directing its electronic intelligence-gathering powers at Canadian citizens; its job is to gather signals intelligence on foreigners deemed a threat.

A senior government source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Star that CSIS has made the deliberate decision not to pursue more serious threat reduction activities that would require judicial warrants until it is clear what, if any, legislative changes will be made to the agency’s powers.

Senior CSIS officials decided it wouldn’t be appropriate while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is undertaking a broad national security review. The Liberals promised during the federal campaign to amend C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism law that gave CSIS the new powers, to strengthen protections for Canadians’ Charter rights. So far the only change introduced is a bill that, when passed, would create more parliamentary oversight of national security agencies.

Until it is clear what direction the government is taking on the boosted powers granted to CSIS, the source said, the spy agency has adopted a cautious approach.

Meanwhile, a lot of work has gone into setting out how CSE and CSIS would work together on threat reduction.

“Significant work has been done between both organizations (CSIS and CSE) with regard to Bill C-51 and specifically in developing an MoU (memorandum of understanding) for assistance on threat reduction activities,” read documents, stamped “top secret” and obtained under access to information law.

Minutes from a June 2016 meeting between senior executives from the two agencies show the deal was signed at that meeting.

A copy of the memorandum of understanding, also released under access law, sets out the rules governing when CSIS has to notify CSE of threat reduction activities, or request the electronic spying agency’s help on more technical operations.

The agreement between CSIS and CSE fleshes out how the agencies must coordinate to avoid stepping on each other’s toes when CSIS is in the field.

CSIS has signed similar agreements with the RCMP to make sure it doesn’t conflict with police operations, and with Global Affairs Canada to ensure the government is aware of any foreign policy or “strategic outcomes” as a result of CSIS flexing its muscle.

The agreement explicitly sets out a CSIS obligation to notify its partner agencies when CSIS plans to disrupt a threat in any way that could potentially affect a CSE investigation.

Under the law, the mandates of the agencies are distinctly different.

CSIS must now notify CSE and the RCMP well before acting, and those two agencies are required to give CSIS their perspective – say, whether it would impede an ongoing investigation – “in a timely manner.”

CSE is empowered to aid CSIS – or law enforcement agencies like the RCMP – with specialized technological support as long as CSIS or the police is acting under its own legal mandate, say with a judicial warrant in hand for the surveillance or disruption.