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Were Canadian spies watching me?

VICE journalist Ben Makuch, currently locked in a court battle with the federal police over source material, sought to find out

Were Canadian spies watching me?

“My previous reply should not be interpreted as a confirmation nor denial of the information you requested via the ATIP,” said Tahera Mufti, an official spokesperson for the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service — our CIA.

The idea of Canadian spooks surveilling journalists isn’t fantasy.

Asking spies whether or not they were spying on you isn’t easy. After a few years of covering national security I’ve dealt with three-letter and four-letter agencies in both Canada and the US and, trust me, their favourite reply to a reporter is: “neither confirm nor deny.”

But the idea of Canadian spooks surveilling journalists isn’t fantasy. In fact, in a recent Senate committee one of the top heads in the Canadian spy agency reluctantly admitted they likely spied on journalists.

“In the course of 30 years of the service being in existence, yes,” explained Brian Rumig, assistant director of CSIS operations, “there might have been a journalist who because of his or her activity in support of threats to the security of Canada might have been investigated by us. Currently I don’t know those numbers.”

In fall 2016 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, under questioning in parliament over revelations Montreal cops surveilled journalists to identify a leaker making headaches for the mayor, issued a veiled denial in the present tense that there was “nothing of this sort happening at the federal level” referring to both CSIS and the RCMP.

“Did you spy or surveill me at any point?”

Given my own reporting based off of communications with multiple alleged terrorists, one who was high on a CIA kill list (the American spy agency even called me about him on a blocked number), it didn’t seem unthinkable certain agencies within Canada were keeping tabs on me.

Last year, out of morbid curiosity and a sneaking suspicion, I sent a freedom of information request to both CSIS and the Mounties, asking for any records in their possession on me.

I followed that up in an email with the question: “Did you spy or surveill me at any point?”

The Canadian spy agency was tight lipped, yet leaving a kernel of a clue behind: it admitted I may have appeared in an obscure yet top secret data bank of investigational records with the name “CSIS PPU 045.”

According to a federal government website, the bank keeps track of “Defectors, human sources or individuals, the nature of whose actions or activities caught the attention of CSIS” and “individuals who incidentally came to the attention of CSIS as a result of carrying out its mandate under section 12 and/or section 16 of the CSIS Act.”

Put simply, if you communicate with terrorists publicly we’ll likely investigate and maintain records on you without your consent and under biblical levels of secrecy.

That said, it’s typical of spy agencies to create Open Source Intelligence reports, or OSINT for short, with journalist clippings and I figured some of mine made the cut. But the agency refused to answer the question altogether. And with yet another recent revelation CSIS uses a covert server bank of intelligence called the Operational Data Analysis Centre to illegally store thousands of records on innocent Canadians — I wondered if my own metadata is being retained.

I pressed. This is basically all I got:

“Freedom of the press is a fundamental Canadian value and CSIS recognizes and respects the role that journalists play, both in informing Canadians, and in contributing to the conversation on national security.

As is always the case, an individual can only be investigated by the Service if there are reasonable grounds to suspect their activities pose a threat to national security. If a subject of investigation is within a sensitive sector (such as the media) there are policies and controls in place to safeguard that fundamental freedom.

CSIS takes very seriously the privacy considerations related to its work, and it is committed to ensuring that its activities are in compliance with all legislation and Ministerial Direction.”

But I’m not blindly naive. After all, the RCMP is trying to seize my communications with an alleged terrorist through the courts. I also know, from court documents, that the federal policing agency kept a close watch over my social media accounts using open source intelligence methods. And I ended up inside a secret Canadian intel terror assessment, which CSIS and the RCMP helps compile, among other partners, as an “American reporter” who “probably” communicated with an Islamic State operative.

In this ITAC report, I’m the “American” they’re referring to.

The RCMP, for its part, came back to me with a canned non-answer.

“A search of records reveals that any record regarding yourself is currently under investigation,” said the spokesperson — with the caveat: “RCMP recognizes the importance of the freedom and independence of the press, and we respect it.”

Spying is, as they say, “the world’s second oldest profession.”

To be clear, most journalists I know, myself included, are under no illusions: intel agencies and law enforcement need powers to disrupt and prevent national security threats. This is a very real fact — even the most hard pressed privacy hawks would admit that espionage and some level of surveillance amounts to mere statecraft. Spying is, as they say, “the world’s second oldest profession.” How far those powers go is where the schism begins between the erosion of civil liberties and the over-policing of potential violent acts.

The fact is, we’re living in a digital age filled with unprecedented unknowns and in that fear and uncertainty, authorities have time and again attempted to press for new powers to spy and seize information with the deliberate or unintended consequence of undermining press freedom. Just think C-51 in Canada amid the rise of the Islamic State, or the Patriot Act in the US after 9/11: two pieces of legislation vastly empowering both intel and law enforcement.

So much for Canada being, according to the Economist, the new land of “liberty”.  

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