Volume 52, Issue 1: Spring 2018

New bill will give ultra-secret spy agency extensive powers

Photo by Sean Kilpatrick/CP

The Trudeau government is seeking to empower an influential, if little-known, arm of Canadian imperialism.

Bill C-59 would authorize the Communications Security Establishment to carry out offensive operations “to degrade, disrupt, influence, respond to or interfere with the capabilities, intentions or activities” of foreign actors. In effect, the Department of National Defence-run intelligence agency could seek to take a government offline, shutter a power plant, knock a drone out of the sky, or interfere in court proceedings and elections in countries Ottawa doesn’t deem “democratic.” The law forbids offensive cyber activities that could cause injury or death or “obstruct, pervert or defeat the course of justice or democracy,” but these limitations don’t apply if CSE receives approval of the foreign minister or conducts its cyber-attacks on behalf of a Canadian military operation. And CSE is allowed to do “anything that is reasonably necessary to maintain the covert nature of the activity.”

Established at the end of the Second World War, CSE has a $600-million budget and employs more than 2,000 mathematicians, engineers, linguists, analysts, computer scientists, etc. In 2011, CSE moved to a $1.2-billion, 110,000-square-metre, seven-building complex connected to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s headquarters in Ottawa.

Unlike CSIS, CSE is largely foreign-focused. It gathers international signals intelligence (which it defines as “intelligence acquired through the collection of electromagnetic signals”) and monitors phone calls, radio, microwave and satellite signals, emails, chat rooms and other forms of Internet exchanges. It engages in various forms of data hacking, sifting daily through millions of videos and online documents. Or as Vice reporter Patrick McGuire put it, CSE “listens in on phone calls and emails to secretly learn about things the Canadian government wants to secretly learn about.”

CSE has become increasingly aggressive over the past 15 years. The agency’s website says it played a “vital role” in the 2001-14 occupation of Afghanistan, and CSE head John Adams boasted that the agency was responsible for more than half the “actionable intelligence” Canadian soldiers used in Afghanistan. That included monitoring Taliban forces and leaders as well as allied Afghan government officials. Information CSE provided protected Canadian troops from attack and helped special forces assassinate Afghans.

CSE also aided the deployment to Iraq and Syria that began in 2014. The agency probably hacked ISIL computers and smartphones and CSE officials likely staffed a state-of-the-art intelligence centre in Kuwait. (Presumably, CSE supported Canada’s 2011 bombing of Libya, 2004 coup in Haiti and other military deployments, but I can’t confirm that.)

Former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revealed that CSE hacked Mexican computers and spied on Brazil’s Department of Mines and Energy. CSE also planted sophisticated malware on mobile phones and hacked into computers abroad to attack targets without being detected.

Snowden also revealed that Canadian diplomatic posts house SIGINT equipment as part of spying efforts led by its U.S. counterpart. One NSA document claimed CSE operated clandestine surveillance activities in “approximately 20 high-priority countries.” In a 1994 book, former CSE officer Michael Frost describes CSE listening posts at a number of embassies or consular posts, while a 2000 paper cited Abidjan, Beijing, Bucharest, Rabat, Kingston (Jamaica), Mexico City, Rome, San Jose (Costa Rica), Warsaw and Tokyo as diplomatic posts where CSE (probably) collected information.

Since the start of the 1960s, CSE has listened to Cuban leaders’ conversations from an interception post in the embassy in Havana. A senior Canadian official, writes author Dwight Hamilton in Inside Canadian Intelligence: Exposing the New Realities of Espionage and International Terrorism, “admitted that the U.S. made ‘far greater use’ of our intelligence during the [October 1962] Cuban Missile Crisis than has been revealed.” In the 1980s, CSE planned to open a communications site in Algeria to help the NSA spy on Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya.

In addition, CSE gathered intelligence on Palestinians for Israel. Frost notes that “[former Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman] Yasser Arafat’s name, for instance, was on every [CSE] key-word list. NSA was happy about that.” According to files released by Snowden, CSE also spied on Israel’s enemies and shared the intelligence with that country’s SIGINT National Unit.

Bill C-59 is a troubling expansion of Canadian imperialism.

Yves Engler, dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire), Yves Engler has published nine books.