Columnists

Monia Mazigh
Is Canada flexing its muscles in the spying world?

| October 12, 2012

This fall, the iconic British spy movie character James Bond, inspired by author Ian Fleming's past as an officer in the Navy Intelligence, will celebrate his fiftieth anniversary.

Of course, James Bond's movies, beyond their obvious commercial intent and Hollywodian glamour, fitted extremely well in a political context of a cold war era where the "good guys" were represented by the Western/American cops and the "bad guys" were represented by the Eastern/Russian spies. Britain, as an ex-empire, developed a thorough expertise in the spying game. Regardless of the legitimacy of their acts, the agents of the Military Intelligence MI5 and MI6, who worked for "Her Majesty," built a strong reputation. 

Today the Cold War is over. The 9/11 attacks created a new war: the "War on Terror." The enemies are different. Subsequently, the public narrative will be different. The classic character of James Bond is outdated. Other players are needed since new threats have been identified. 

Canada has never been a major player in the spying industry. Until recently, it has been perceived from the outside world as a mild power among the G8 countries, mainly known for its peacekeepers and foreign aid. Furthermore, it is not a secret that Canada doesn’t have the human or technical expertise, or the real politico-strategic needs to dive into the spying game. But things might have changed within the last few years.

Recent reports in the media indicate that Canada is in the process of building a mega complex for the Communication Security Establishment (CSE), the agency that spies on communications originating oversees including phone calls (there is still ambiguity as to whether CSE is now spying on domestic communications involving Canadian citizens), Internet activities and other electronic communications. It is estimated that the facility will cost up to $880-million. We are told up to 1800 employees will be working there.

So why did the Harper government decide to enter that risky business from the big door? How could such lavish expenses be justified, especially in a hard economic context of federal cuts and public austerity agenda? 

The answer to this question, found in the documents that were revealed by the same media reports, justifies the new building as follows: "It will distinguish Canada as a leader among its intelligence allies for this type of showcase facility." But aren't there a million other ways to distinguish Canada? Why this one particular? 

The funds could well have been injected to invigorate the crumbling infrastructure of the country,  in the frail public health system or even in research and development. Instead, the current government decided to build an extravagant place to host future spy apprentices. 

Assuming that Canada is in dire need of entering the spying business for some mysterious reasons of "national security," a question nonetheless will remain: why invest in buildings instead of technologies and human capital? 

Beyond the essentially wrong direction taken by this government lies another fundamental flaw: the strong desire to leave physical military traces in the Canadian landscape. 

Thus, a better answer to the first question I posed may be found in the ongoing militarization of Canada.

From the participation of Canada in the Afghanistan war, to the bungled purchase of F35 fighters, to the Canadian role in the NATO's bombardment of Libya, and the list is still growing, Canada is no longer the "peaceful" brand name it used to be under previous governments. The policies of Stephen Harper are reshaping the country for decades to come with the tacit approval of a good percentage of the population. 

But what is really worrying with this news in particular is that not many years ago the Arar and Iacobucci judicial inquiries brought to light that Canada had no safeguards in sharing intelligence information with other countries. Moreover, both inquiries showed that Canada had used (directly or indirectly) information extracted from torture.

So one can only wonder what will happen now in this new facility that is expected to hold 1800 employees! Very few Canadians know of the existence of such a facility and many of its activities slip under the radar of the media. How can such a giant be controlled? 

We shouldn't forget that one of the Arar's commission recommendations was to create a single authority to oversee all federal police and security organizations involved with the transfer of information between Canada and the foreign governments.

This current government not only chose to ignore this recommendation but it chose to go further deep in the spying game no matter what the consequences could be on Canadians, on their cherished freedom and their hard-won civil rights.