Spies, lies and the myth of ‘oversight’ at CSIS
By Andrew Mitrovica | Apr 3, 2015
Lie, deny … then act surprised if you get caught. Translate that into Latin and you’d have a pretty good unofficial motto for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
I learned that lesson from John Farrell — a former Toronto gang leader turned postal inspector, turned CSIS dirty-tricks operative — while writing a book about his long, eventful career inside the spy service.
Farrell (whose pardon was fast-tracked by Ottawa so he could get top-secret security clearance) was a loyal, hardworking and well-paid CSIS agent for years.
No wannabe, Farrell worked directly for powerful people inside CSIS and was intimately involved in some of its most notorious and sensitive capers. Knowledge of who Farrell was and what he did for CSIS — including all the illegal stuff — reached high levels in the spy service’s HQ in Ottawa.
Indeed, former CSIS director Ward Elcock once wrote Farrell a letter offering him $6,000 in “humanitarian assistance” after Farrell complained that CSIS had stiffed him. Ultimately, Farrell sued CSIS to try to get his money. (I later discovered that CSIS promised — in writing — to pay Farrell even more money if he was prepared to disavow everything he told me for the book.)
While he worked side by side with senior CSIS officers in Toronto, Farrell was often ordered to lie, then deny, then act surprised. He wasn’t alone, of course. He saw CSIS officers doing the same thing all the time.
Remember this when the Bill C-51 apologists in the media and academia, or Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s blinkered minions, insist that since CSIS always plays by the rules, we don’t have to be alarmed by all those new powers they’re getting in Bill C-51 — powers that effectively make legal what under current law is very illegal.
Think the current checks and balances are enough to keep CSIS honest? Let’s get real. Farrell told me that many CSIS officers considered the spy service’s review agency, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, little more than a nuisance. He informed me that seasoned CSIS officers often colluded to mislead SIRC’s handful of raw, overworked and gullible “investigators.”
No one at CSIS worries that much about SIRC. They treat it like a visit to the dentist: a necessary nuisance, rarely painful.
Like Farrell, celebrated Toronto lawyer Rocco Galati knows all about CSIS’s in-house motto — and just how dangerously inept SIRC is.
Galati has been a persistent burr in the spy service’s hide, and Harper’s too. Recall that it was Galati who taught the prime minister and company a sharp lesson about the Constitution when he scuttled Harper’s plans to appoint Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court. (For his lifelong commitment to the rule of law, the Ontario Bar Association will honour Galati with the President’s Award at its annual gala later this month.)
That’s Galati through and through — a brilliant, principled troublemaker armed with a deep knowledge of law. For the powers-that-be, that’s a dangerous combination.
In 1999, Galati was representing two men accused by Ottawa of being national security threats. Galati suspected that CSIS was snooping on his supposedly sacrosanct conversations with his clients. (He also suspected that he was being followed.)
Galati demanded answers in court. CSIS kept mum. The Crown dismissed Galati’s concerns as ridiculous.
“I knew I was being wiretapped,” Galati told me in an interview.
Turns out he was right all along. In 2012, the Crown belatedly admitted that CSIS (and the Canada Border Services Agency) had tapped all of Galati’s telephone calls with his clients. Apparently CSIS can also lie, deny and act surprised in front of a federal court judge.
Galati said that CSIS’s actions had “corrupted” the judicial process. In 2012 and 2013, I wrote two columns for the Toronto Star in which I challenged SIRC to find out who at CSIS ordered the bugging, who conducted it, who covered it up for so long and, if necessary, to refer the matter to the RCMP.
In my 2013 column, I quoted SIRC Executive Director Michael Doucet, who — get this — told me that he didn’t know anything about CSIS having bugged Galati’s phone calls for years until I told him. He assured me that he was going to raise the issue directly with then-SIRC chair Chuck Strahl, a former Harper cabinet minister.
But Strahl didn’t last long as SIRC chair. He resigned in January 2014 after being ensnared in a messy conflict of interest scandal. (Strahl was a lobbyist for Enbridge on the Northern Gateway pipeline. CSIS reportedly has kept tabs on aboriginal and environmental groups opposed to the pipeline.)
I tried to determine this week what, if anything, SIRC has done to probe the bugging of Galati’s phone calls by CSIS in the years since I wrote those columns.
This is what I’ve learned. SIRC never picks up the phone. A recorded message tells callers that someone from SIRC will call back ASAP. No one called me back. (I left three messages over two days.) No surprise, really. Given that SIRC has a pathetically tiny budget and staff, I suspect that answering questions from a member of the public isn’t a priority.
Tried sending my questions to SIRC via email. Good luck finding an email address for anyone on SIRC’s homepage. SIRC does have something called a ‘fax machine’ that apparently runs 24/7. (I checked the calendar. It’s still 2015.)
Two of my iPolitics colleagues, reporters Amanda Connolly and Kristie Smith, independently approached SIRC by phone earlier this week to get answers as well. No response from SIRC.
So I think I can now safely conclude that SIRC hasn’t done a damn thing to investigate the disturbing fact that CSIS bugged a lawyer’s phone for a decade without his knowledge or consent, or that of his clients.
Galati laughed when I asked him whether he had filed a complaint with SIRC. “They’re useless,” he said. He confirmed that SIRC hasn’t contacted him to ask about the bugging.
“It’s all a smokescreen. SIRC isn’t there to do anything but make it look like it’s doing something to oversee CSIS. Nobody is doing anything to oversee CSIS. They’re out-of-control renegades.”
If CSIS can get away with bugging a lawyer’s phone calls with his client, imagine what the spy service will do when Bill C-51 becomes law. It’s chilling.
And SIRC — that sorry, somnolent excuse for a “review” agency — can’t and won’t do anything to stop or rein in this nation’s spooks. That’s chilling, too.
Andrew Mitrovica is a writer and journalism instructor. For much of his career, Andrew was an investigative reporter for a variety of news organizations and publications including the CBC’s fifth estate, CTV’s W5, CTV National News — where he was the network’s chief investigative producer — the Walrus magazine and the Globe and Mail, where he was a member of the newspaper’s investigative unit. During the course of his 23-year career, Andrew has won numerous national and international awards for his investigative work.