JIM BRONSKILL, CP
Correspondence obtained by The Canadian Press shows the public controversy about U.S. National Security Agency spying on American citizens led to a series of highly classified exchanges in Ottawa.
John Adams, chief of the ultra-secret Communications Security Establishment, was forced to respond to detailed inquiries spanning two months from the office of Antonio Lamer, the former Supreme Court chief justice who, as CSE commissioner, serves as watchdog over the spy outfit.
Portions of the correspondence, including even the security classifications stamped on the letters, were blacked out due to the information’s sensitivity.
But it is clear from the records, obtained under the Access to Information Act, that Lamer’s office wanted to ensure the CSE, a wing of the Defence Department, wasn’t contravening Canadian law by conducting excessive snooping in the fight against terrorism.
Joanne Weeks, executive director of the commissioner’s office, said in an interview she was surprised by the Defence Department’s release of the letters.
The Ottawa-based CSE monitors foreign radio, telephone, fax, satellite and computer traffic for information of interest to Canada. The intelligence is used in support of Canadian crime-fighting, defence and trade policies.
Military listening posts assist the agency’s efforts to eavesdrop on foreign states and organizations, as well as on suspected terrorists, drug traffickers, smugglers and other criminals.
Computer specialists and language experts use cutting-edge tools to sift the intercepted data and create thousands of secret intelligence reports each year for government agencies.
The CSE works closely with the signals intelligence services of allied countries, including the massive Maryland-based National Security Agency, which boasts more than 30,000 employees.
In December, the New York Times disclosed that U.S. President George W. Bush had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States without court-approved warrants.
Despite harsh condemnation from privacy advocates, U.S. government officials have defended the program as constitutional.
The CSE has long been prohibited from directing its surveillance at Canadians or anybody in Canada.
However, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 gave the CSE authority to tap into the conversations and messages of foreigners even if those communications began or ended in Canada.
For instance, the CSE could now intercept a phone call made by an al-Qaida operative from somewhere in the Middle East to Toronto.
Various safeguards, including ministerial approval, were built into the practice. Still, some critics consider this sort of eavesdropping as potentially dangerous to the civil liberties of Canadians, since the CSE would not require a judge-approved warrant.
This led to suggestions that the sort of controversial spying under attack in the United States may also be taking place in Canada.
Weeks sent the first letter from the commissioner’s office to the CSE’s Adams on Jan. 10. He replied 10 days later. A meeting between Adams and the watchdog took place Jan. 26, and there were two follow-up responses from the CSE chief.
Both Weeks and CSE spokesman Adrian Simpson cited national security in declining to discuss details of the written exchanges.
However, one matter that appeared to pique the interest of the commissioner’s office was a 2002 published report, never confirmed, that CSE had helped convict a U.S. man of sending illicit cash to suspected Hezbollah terrorists.
On Feb. 15, Lamer evidently wrote Adams about this allegation and another media story.
In his March 9 reply, Adams tried to reassure the commissioner that nothing improper had occurred, saying, »Our legislation and public profile have driven the creation of extensive internal measures aimed at ensuring respect for the law and the rights of Canadians.»
The CSE insists a key difference between the Canadian and U.S. interception regimes is that the CSE still cannot directly target the communications of Canadians.
Weeks said the commissioner »was satisfied with the responses to the queries he posed to the chief of CSE.»
The issue will be addressed in the commissioner’s coming annual report to Parliament, she added.
May 1, 2006
JIM BRONSKILL, CP