Liberals, NDP treading softly over anti-terrorism bill

Ian Macleod, Ottawa Citizen

With the House of Commons set to begin debate this week on sweeping anti-terror legislation, the two main opposition parties are treading gingerly, reluctant to confront the bill head-on.

Both New Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau have expressed concerns about Bill C-51, but neither party has said it will oppose the biggest restructuring of national security powers since 2001.

Only Green Party leader Elizabeth May has raised fierce objections, calling C-51 an “act to create a new secret police.”

The NDP isn’t expected to announce its final position on the bill until after its Wednesday caucus meeting — just hours before two days of Commons debate of the bill begins.

Trudeau has said the Liberals will vote in favour of the bill, even if the Conservatives ignore his party’s demands to strengthen oversight of the expanded Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), insert a sunset clause and have statutory parliamentary review of parts of the legislation.

The proposed set of laws would dramatically expand the mandate and power of the CSIS — including allowing it to obtain warrants to breach the Criminal Code and Charter rights. The bill would criminalize the promotion of terrorism, make it easier for police to arrest and detain individuals without charge as suspected national security threats, and much more.

Several legal and national security experts have expressed concern. Some say the proposed legislation is a radical and potentially dangerous departure from traditional Canadian law. Other experts think it is proportional and reasonable, given modern-day threats of terrorism.

The government hopes the bill will become law before summer. A federal election is to be held in the fall.

Since the legislation was tabled Jan. 30, Mulcair has been wary of the bill but non-committal on how his party will vote. NDP MP Randall Garrison, the party’s public safety critic, said last week that “we are prepared to look at what we need to do to meet the threats that we face, but the government has not provided any evidence that what they’re proposing addresses the actual threats we face.”

He suggested the NDP is leaning against the bill.

“I have had zero phones call, emails or personal contacts urging me to vote for the bill. I would take that my colleagues are hearing similar things,” Garrison said.

“We will be coming back together as a caucus and when the debate begins we will be letting people know what our final decision is. But we are expressing concerns, we’re not saying we’re neutral.”

He cited two chief concerns with the legislation.

The first is the need for increased oversight of the newly empowered CSIS and related national security operations — a matter the government never seriously considered when drafting the proposed legislation.

Garrison said a distinction needs to made between ongoing monitoring and oversight and after-the-fact review by the CSIS watchdog group known as SIRC. The Security Intelligence Review Committee is a small, independent five-member committee struggling to operate efficiently. In its latest performance report, SIRC raises doubts about its ability to properly execute some of those duties following a spate of resignations and retirements.

As well, in 2012, the government abolished the office of the inspector general of CSIS, leaving everything to SIRC. “But I don’t see any capacity of SIRC to do that work,” said Garrison.

In 2009, SIRC failed to note that CSIS was not using some judicial intercept warrants as instructed by the Federal Court of Canada. But the court itself eventually noticed and in 2013 issued a thundering rebuke of CSIS, essentially saying the service lied when applying for warrants. The case is now before the Supreme Court of Canada.

In its latest annual report, SIRC found more fault with CSIS’s required disclosure of information.

In two instances, SIRC, “encountered significant delays in receiving requested documentation and had to press the service to obtain complete and consistent answers to several questions.”

In another, “SIRC found that it had been seriously misled by CSIS and that CSIS had violated its duty of candour. In a (fourth) complaint report, SIRC was critical of CSIS for failing to proactively highlight a highly relevant document. “

Garrison also cited, as the second issue, the “overreach” of the bill, which the government says is intended to counter terrorism although it is seen as much more expansive. The bill aims to reduce “activity that undermines the security of Canada.”

That includes “interference with critical infrastructure; with the global information infrastructure; that causes serious harm to person or their property because of their association with Canada; changing or unduly influencing a government in Canada by force or unlawful means.”

Said Garrison: “There’s slippage, from talking about terrorism into the writing of a broad definition of national security. We’re concerned that goes too far, that it begins to confuse legitimate dissent with terrorism.”

The bill also changes CSIS’s mandate from one of strict intelligence-gathering and analysis to an offensive, internal security organization with the power to disrupt not just terrorist threats but any and all “threats to the security of Canada.”

“It seems to include terrorist activity, illegal activity and perhaps more,” said Garrison.

Meanwhile, the Liberals say Trudeau’s early support for the bill — with or without government acceptance of proposed Liberal amendments — still leaves the party with options.

“If the government is not going to allow democracy to work and allow sensible amendments to be put into the legislation, then we will put those key amendments in our election platform,” said MP Wayne Easter, the party’s public safety critic.

As of Thursday, a Liberal committee was whittling down a list of 38 proposed amendments. Chief among them were strengthened oversight, sunset provisions and statutory parliamentary review.

“The prime minister is saying the threat levels are higher; we really don’t know. He’s not briefing the leaders. But if indeed the threat levels are as high as those who should be in the know are saying, then we have to supportive,” said Easter.

“But we also need to … ensure that these additional authorities are not for an indefinite time. Threat levels will go up and threat levels will go down.”