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Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Four reasons Harper's new anti-terrorist legislation will alarm you

| February 2, 2015
Photo: flickr/andrewarchy

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1. CSIS with new intrusive powers will have more than "Jihadists" in its sights

Prime Minister Stephen Harper talked only about "violent Jihadists" when he held a campaign style rally last Friday to unveil his new security legislation.

But the actual "anti-terrorist" omnibus Bill C-51 makes no reference to such enemies of Canada. It merely talks in entirely undefined ways about "terrorism."

In the federal government's 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, which officials gave to journalists as part of their briefing on the new legislation, there is a long list of "terrorist entities listed by Canada," which does, indeed, include many that are notionally Islamist.

But there are many others, as well.

Among those others are: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, the World Tamil Movement in North America, the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey, the Basque Euskadi Ta Askatasuna in Spain and France, and the International Sikh Youth Federation in India and elsewhere.

Think of the implications of listing the two Tamil organizations, to cite just that example.

Harper's government recognizes that the current Sri Lankan government, dominated and controlled by the Sinhalese majority, is hardly a model of respect for human rights in its treatment of the Tamil minority. 

The Prime Minister even decided to boycott a Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka because of that regime's human rights abuses.

The abusers of human rights in Sri Lanka -- the terrorists, if you will -- are on both sides of the long-running conflict in that country.

Listing Tamil organizations on a terrorist threat list is tantamount to taking the human rights abusing government's side.

Now, would the new powers the Harper government wants to give the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) encourage its agents to spy on, sabotage and disrupt Canadians who might seek to peacefully protest Sri Lankan government human rights abuses?

It would be natural for CSIS to see such peaceful protesters as "fellow travellers" of the listed terrorist entities, and thus legitimate targets. There are over 200,000 Canadians of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, many of whom have an intense interest in what happens in their homeland.   

Further, the new CSIS powers will not limit the focus of the spy agency to foreign-based "terrorist" entities.

Last September, a Carleton University instructor obtained a report produced by the RCMP's "infrastructure intelligence team" which identified Canadian environmentalists as a potential threat. 

The report did not only talk about radical extremists on the fringe, who might resort to illegal actions. It focused on anyone who might somehow "interfere with" the ambitions of industry, especially the oil and gas industry, to carry on and expand operations, however harmful to the environment those operations might be.

Here are the report's own words:

It is highly probable that environmentalists will continue to mount direct actions targeting Canada's energy sector, specifically the petroleum sub-sector and the fossil and nuclear fuelled electricity generating facilities, with the objectives of: influencing government energy policy, interfering within the energy regulatory process and forcing the energy industry to cease its operations that harm the environment.

Note that all of the activities the RCMP here states "threaten Canadian security" would fall into the category of the legal, peaceful and democratic exercise of free speech and right to protest.

To what extent will the new powers Harper wants to give CSIS put those exercising such legal and democratic rights in jeopardy?

2. New legislation would give CSIS the power to engage in "dirty tricks"

In the 1970s, the RCMP's security service, which CSIS replaced more than 30 years ago, carried out a series of illegal sabotage and disruption operations in order to counter what it took to be the threat of "terrorist" Quebec separatists.

Security service agents broke into the offices of the left of centre Agence de Presse Libre du Québec, acquired dynamite and tried to make it look like it belonged to the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), entered homes without warrants hundreds of times, and stole the membership list of a legal political party (the Parti Québecois).

The proposed new terrorist legislation gives the security service's successor organization, CSIS, broad powers to commit the kind of sabotage and disruption operations the RCMP security used to undertake.

Do not be deceived by the bland language of the proposed legislation, to wit:

If there are reasonable grounds to believe that a particular activity constitutes a threat to the security of Canada, the Service [CSIS] may take measures, within or outside of Canada, to reduce the threat.

"May take [mostly unspecified] measures," says the Bill, but there are precious few limits on those "measures."

And if you're not scared yet, please note that the Bill does specifically mention a few of the things CSIS could do. It is, to say the least, a disturbing list.

The proposed legislation stipulates that CSIS agents may "enter any place or open or obtain access to any thing; search for... take extracts from and make copies of... information, record[s], document[s] or thing[s]; [and] install, maintain or remove any thing."

Can we be sure that the targets of all this intrusive activity will only be those evil Jihadist bad guys the Prime Minister identified in his political event last Friday? 

The law only says that CSIS must have "reasonable grounds to believe" there is an undefined "threat to the security of Canada." That could cover a lot of possibilities.

The RCMP already believes questioning the role of the fossil fuel or nuclear industries constitutes a threat to Canadian security. 

What will CSIS believe when it gets these new powers?

3. Parliament will not oversee or supervise a beefed-up CSIS

We may not be sure yet how CSIS might use its new and expanded powers, but one thing is certain: if the government has its way, there will be no parliamentary oversight commensurate with the new danger of abuse by the spy (now to become, in effect, the secret police) agency. 

The Minister of Public Security, Steven Blaney, says the existing body that keeps an eye on CSIS, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), is all we need.

Experts in the field are not convinced.

SIRC only has three politically appointed members and a small staff. It may formally report to Parliament annually, but it operates under the direct supervision not of Parliament but of the Minister of Public Security. In the words of SIRC itself, "ministerial direction" guides its work.

In other words, the Minister who is responsible for CSIS also directs the small and poorly resourced Committee that, very notionally, oversees and supervises CSIS's work. 

With that kind of institutional arrangement, taken together with the added powers the Harper government wants to give CSIS, we could say, to paraphrase Winston Churchill: "Some oversight; some supervision!"

4. Proposed legislation makes it a crime to express some vaguely defined views 

Harper's anti-terrorism Bill introduces a new and largely undefined crime of "communicating statements" that knowingly advocate or promote "the commission of terrorist offences in general."

A person who commits this crime could be sentenced to up to five years in prison.

The "communication" the Bill would make illegal could be done through printed or broadcast material, or online.

Again, the actual words of the proposed legislation that describe the possible criminal "products" should raise concern. They are: "Terrorist material or data that makes terrorist material available [italics added]."

"Data" that makes terrorist material "available."

Those words open the door to massive snooping on social media posts, emails, blogs and other forms of online communication.

And that snooping would happen not for the purpose of identifying actual terrorist acts-in-the-making. Its purpose would be to root out the mere expression of ideas that the authorities somehow decide amounts to "promoting the commission of terrorist offences."

Take the case of environmental activists who vigorously argue that the exploitation of tar sands bitumen is, in a variety of ways, a blight on the environment.

Could the police deem that by implicitly encouraging others to, in some way or other, sabotage tar sands operations those activists might be "promoting terrorist acts?"

We cannot yet know for sure. But recent and not-so-recent history should make us worry.

Authorities have tended to frame activism on the environment, First Nations rights, refugees and the poor as all being somehow suspect, at best, and often as inimical to the interests of the Canadian State.

It is not far-fetched to imagine that once this new crime is created eager beaver police officers will comb through the blogs, postings, emails and articles of all kinds of activists, looking for any hint that they are "promoting terrorism."

Even if it might be hard to make a case in court that criticism of the tar sands amounts to encouragement of environmental sabotage -- and, ergo, "terrorism" -- the license to snoop that this new criminal provision would grant the police should give us all pause.

The Harper government has already made environmental and progressive charitable groups a special target for Canada Revenue Agency investigations. 

One shudders to think what it might do with the capacity to investigate expressions of dissidence for the possibility that they constitute criminal "promotion of terrorism."

If nothing else, it would be an excellent way to harass people whose views the government does not like.   

Photo: flickr/andrewarchy

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