A Brief History of CSIS - National Security in a Liberal Democracy

In the ever-changing world of digital society, national security apparatuses have continuously expanded their scope and capabilities. New ways of tracking and collecting information has pushed the legal limits of current legislation, while often ambiguous threats from home and abroad has forced our security agencies to use any means at their disposal. Though all in the attempt to keep Canadian citizens and values secure, the result has been a precarious mixture of surveillance of Canadians and inappropriate government oversight. Senator Hugh Segal (retiring this year) wrote an article in the National Post last week demanding that a commission be held to sort out these serious issues. His call for the “modernization of our national security culture” is timely and echoes some of the concerns that led to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service's (CSIS) creation nearly thirty years ago.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Act was passed by Parliament in July, 1984. It removed the powers of the Security Service, a section of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and put in its place a new civilian agency, CSIS.

The RCMP has had a role in national security since Confederation, but it was only in 1945 with the Gouzenko Affair that the Special Branch was formed specifically in regards to “national security.” Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet cipher clerk at the Embassy in Ottawa, exposed proof of a spy-ring in Canada that was passing on nuclear secrets. On a September night in 1945, Gouzenko wandered the streets of Ottawa with a briefcase of Soviet code books trying to defect from Russia. He was turned away by the RCMP, who didn't believe his story, the Ottawa Journal, and finally the Department of Justice – which was closed until the next morning. He returned home and moved his family to an apartment across the hall and watched as Soviet agents broke into his apartment. The next day, though the RCMP finally accepted Gouzenko's story, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King debated whether to let him simply commit suicide and then look at his documents after, or bring him in for questioning. The Undersecretary of External Affairs, Norman Robertson, refused to consider such an option and granted asylum to Gouzenko. The ensuing scandal exposed 39 suspects, including Communist Member of Parliament Fred Rose, and underlined the need for a more cohesive national security strategy.

The Special Branch slowly expanded in size over the next few decades. It became a tool for investigating suspected communists in Canada. “The Infernal Machine” was what historian Larry Hannant calls the systematic violation of civil liberties of thousands of Canadian citizens: “the infernal machine was built without breaks, and roll on it did.” In 1966, Vancouver postal employee George Victor Spencer was dismissed after allegations emerged that he was a Soviet spy. The failure to “catch” Spencer led to a larger Royal Commission on Security headed by Maxwell Mackenzie. It eventually published a report recommending more intensive screening procedures as well as divorcing the Special Branch from the RCMP force. Their ordinary policing duties were, in the eyes of the Mackenzie Commission, incompatible with security intelligence work. Civilian oversight of the national security apparatus was partially rejected by the Trudeau government and, in light of the 1970 October Crisis, it seemed like the RCMP's rough tactics were necessary. So while the Special Branch became the Security Service in 1970 and was led by a civilian Director General, the first of whom was diplomat John Starnes, it was still under RCMP control.

The failure to separate policing and security intelligence work had immediate consequences during the 1970s. Journalist John Sawatsky published a series of exposé articles in the Vancouver Sun, eventually concluding that a cover-up of illegal RCMP activities had taken place for years and extended all the way to Ottawa. Sawatsky later wrote a book based on his reporting, Men in the Shadows - The RCMP Security Service. The publication of the RCMP actions like burning down a barn near Montreal that was an alleged meeting place of militant American radicals, or burglarizing the offices of a left-wing newspaper, Agence du Presse Libre Quebec, or the theft of Parti Quebecois member lists, soon forced a new Royal Commission concerning Canadian national security agencies. Headed by Judge David Cargill McDonald, the McDonald Commission began in 1977 and delivered its report in 1981. Its chief recommendation was once again the creation of a civilian security service. This time, the federal government listened.

The McDonald Commission report outlined the difficult task ahead. “Liberal democracies face a unique challenge in maintaining the security of the state,” it said, “Put very simply, that challenge is to secure democracy against both its internal and external enemies, without destroying democracy in the process.” Echoing the Mackenzie commission regarding the problems of excessive RCMP actions, the McDonald commission recommended more comprehensive oversight. This would take two forms for the new CSIS organization. One, an Inspector General whose sole job was to review CSIS activities would be put in place and report to the Solicitor General, and two, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), a panel that reported to Parliament. The new methods were meant to balance security needs of a modern state and the values of a liberal democracy. After several attempts to pass a bill through Parliament that failed due its ambiguous outline of the agency's powers, Bill C-9 was successfully made into law in July of 1984. Called, “An Act to Establish the Canadian Security Intelligence Service,” it created CSIS as we know it today.

In 2014, Canada again stands at a crossroads in regards to its national security agency. As Hugh Segal outlines, “elaborating and discussing the future context, exigencies and culture of national security is an important social and political undertaking.” Segal is right that we require a new Royal Commission to decide how the future of Canadian national security and intelligence will look. The Mackenzie and McDonald commissions were both in response to the failure of Canada's security service to limit itself within the boundaries of a liberal democracy. As we face a new age of digital surveillance, it is important to remember their warnings. The McDonald Commission seems more and more relevant today in light of the Edward Snowden's revelations about America's NSA domestic and foreign spying.  We should remember their warning: “Only liberal democratic states are expected to make sure that the investigation of subversive activity does not interfere with the freedoms of political dissent and association which are essential ingredients of a free society.”

In the digital age, such warnings are essential to remember and should be guiding government action. Perhaps more careful oversight of CSIS is required – or at least, a clearer understanding of their responsibilities and capabilities within the boundaries of Canadian law. All of which is part of a far greater process which we have alluded to before on this site. What will digital society look like? Royal Commissions and decisions about digital surveillance and security will shape the Canada of the 21st century. Their choices are not simply about national security and legal issues, they extend to larger patterns about the shape of our future society and our relationship to technology. Will we successfully preserve the tenets of liberal democracy, as we have done historically? Or, will they fade away in the face of a new world?  That responsibility should lie heavy on the shoulders of our government leaders and be of concern to anyone who will be living in it.