Bill C-51: Do our Allies Really Have Similar Powers to Violate the Law?

In its backgrounder on the new CSIS powers proposed in Bill C-51, the government writes:

Our Government is working to disrupt acts of terrorism before they come to pass. This Bill proposes to give CSIS a new mandate to intervene in order to disrupt threats to the security of Canada. ...With its new mandate, CSIS could take measures, at home and abroad, to disrupt threats when it had reasonable grounds to believe that there was a threat to the security of Canada. ... Intelligence services in most of Canada's close democratic allies have had similar mandates and powers for many years.

Kent Roach and I have published our analysis of these new powers here and our examination of Canada's inadequate accountability regime here.  I won't therefore repeat that assessment in this post.  Rather, I want to raise issues concerning this line: "Intelligence services in most of Canada's close democratic allies have had similar mandates and powers for many years."

The government (and especially Minister Blaney) has repeated this many times, adding that our system is even better than those of our allies because the CSIS powers will require warrants.

I believe these claims to be incorrect, or at least require substantial nuancing.

First point: I have had little time to probe this issue in full. That is, I have not had time to review the law of all of our allies, or to speak to professors specializing in national security law in all jurisdictions.  I have, however, looked at the law of New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.  And I have spoken to very respected law professors specializing in security law in the last three jurisdictions.  I asked them this question (example from my message to my Australian counterpart):

The Cdn government keeps saying the new CSIS powers just catch up to powers that allied agencies have (their CSIS backgrounder: "Intelligence services in most of Canada's close democratic allies have had similar mandates and powers for many years"; and ministers have this in their speaking points).  These statements puzzle me.  ASIO in Australia has a power of investigative detention.  Maybe the government is thinking of this, but then they have also said that CSIS won’t detain anyone.  I have spoken to colleagues in the UK and they don’t seem to think MI5 has powers of the sort that the government is proposing for CSIS.  The US doesn’t have a CSIS-type organization, and the FBI is law enforcement.  So no help there.  Is the government thinking about foreign intelligence services like the CIA and MI6?  If so, well that would be a huge problem since those services don’t exercise their powers domestically for the very reason that they would often be unlawful and trench deeply on civil liberties (Church inquiry and all that).  And at any rate, most countries know it is a very bad idea to place a security intelligence organization together with a foreign intelligence organization in the same agency.

This is all a long way of saying, do you have any sense of what the government might be talking about?  I’d be grateful for your insights.

The response from colleagues from Australia, UK and US is: the domestic services of these countries simply do not have powers analogous to what Bill C-51 proposes for CSIS.  Period.  (In their responses, some colleagues said they were "perplexed" by the Canadian government's claims.  One suggested that perhaps our government was thinking of Russia -- I assume he was joking.)

This conclusion re: Australia, UK and US appears to be true for New Zealand.  See s. 4(2) here.

So none of our "Five Eye" allies have seen fit to give their domestic covert service the power to do things domestically that the government wants CSIS to do in Canada.

Most of these allies do have foreign services -- that is, a separate organization (ASIS, MI6, CIA) that works overseas.  Even here, however, the government misstates if it insists that whatever conduct CSIS gets up to internationally will be authorized by a Federal Court warrant, and this makes for more robust accountability than exists among Five Eye foreign intelligence services.  

The only circumstance in which the bill clearly requires a warrant is when CSIS “will” contravene a Charter right or be contrary to other Canadian law. As with its existing surveillance powers, a substantial amount of CSIS activity will fall short of the warrant “trigger” and will never come to a judge.  This is especially true in international operations: places where Canadian law and the Charter generally don’t reach and so are irrelevant as a trigger.  Put another way: Canadian law doesn't apply overseas.  So it can't be violated.  So no warrant is ever required. 

So to summarize what I have been told by colleagues who teach and write on security law in our closest allies:

No, Canada's Five Eyes allies do not have domestic intelligence services that do disruption analogous to the powers in C-51.  And no, we won't have more checks and balances for CSIS foreign operations, because the warrant requirement will rarely apply to foreign operations.

If all this is correct, that means Canada is prepared to let its domestic intelligence service act beyond the law in a manner that has no precedent among our closest allies. 

So exactly how are we playing catch up to "close democratic allies have had similar mandates and powers for many years"?  It looks like we are leading the charge in eroding the rule of law.