Montreal -- Community members showed up at the offices of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) in Montreal yesterday morning, intent on engaging in a little role reversal. The group came equipped to photograph and interrogate people entering the offices in an action called "profile the profilers."
The diverse crowd had a number of issues to raise with potential agents -- including CSIS policy and their personal views on racial profiling, Islamophobia, guilt by association, use of information obtained under torture, intimidation tactics, bribery and privacy. However, security agents quickly closed the doors and employees were ushered in another entrance. Several police vans waited across the road, just in case.
In a 2005 policy memo released by the Canadian Press, CSIS referred to unannounced workplace visits as a "legitimate investigative strategy." But when the tables were turned, they aren't so sure. When CSIS agents show up at people's workplaces or at their homes, security guards and police don't interfere.
The action was part of a project called CSIS Watch launched by the Montreal-based People's Commission Network in 2009. In response to an increase in intimidation visits to activists before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics -- CSIS received a special budget of $11 million for security around the Olympics -- the grassroots group put out a community advisory calling on people to stop speaking to CSIS. While everyone knows they shouldn't speak to police -- the "right to remain silent" -- not everyone knows that it is equally important to remain silent if visited by CSIS.
The advisory also asked people to break the silence and report visits. The People's Commission has since received numerous reports of visits. Muslim and Arab communities remain under the most pressure; unsurprisingly, given the attitudes expressed by Harper and his government and the fact that, according to its own oversight body, SIRC, CSIS shows a "regrettable" attitude that supporting Arab causes can be suspicious.
One person who got in touch with the People's Commission after being visited, Hadi Qaderi, agreed to come out to speak at the Profile the Profilers action. The Montreal community activist opened his door one evening to find two people on his doorstep. They asked if they could come in, identifying themselves only as government employees. The two introduced themselves as CSIS once they were safely ensconced inside his apartment. They then questioned him about his political beliefs, particularly his thoughts on Afghanistan, even asking for his opinion on the novel The Kite Runner. They asked him to provide information on other activists and promised to keep it secret -- "just like in the security certificate cases." Hadi understood the implicit threat: give us information, or you know what we can do. When they left, the two agents asked him to keep quiet about their visit.
The theatrical action also featured a surprise visit by CSIS head Richard Fadden -- or a look-alike. Fadden launched into a vigorous defence of the use of torture before he was booed away from the microphone. A series of media revelations since late November 2011 have shown the extent to which CSIS trades in torture and is supported by the government in doing so.
A banner was unfurled, announcing, "CSIS, We're Watching you!" and calling for non-collaboration. The crowd underscored the point by brandishing a small forest of ears on sticks, while the MC wore a giant security camera. A play list featuring classic paranoid hits, from "Every move you make," to "Somebody's Watching Me," wrapped up the event.
Meanwhile, in Ottawa, the Conservative government introduced its promised austerity budget. While the austerity card was played to justify cuts to social spending, the gods smiled on oil projects. CSIS's budget will also be cut by $25 million over three years -- about $8 million a year. This may seem like a lot of money but in fact represents a miniscule 1.5 per cent of the spies' half-billion-dollar annual budget. In contrast, since 2000, CSIS's financial base has increased by almost 160 per cent, from less than $200 million in 2001 to $511 million in 2010.
With the increased popular discontent austerity is bound to generate, the Conservative government may well be counting on a robust spy agency to help keep people under control.
The CSIS Watch campaign was publicly launched at a press conference in January 2012. Almost 80 organizations -- including student groups, unions, activist collectives, indigenous solidarity organizations, community organizations, feminist groups -- have so far endorsed the call to cease all co-operation with CSIS.
People's Commission Network
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