Arrests reveal Canada's work against terror

Authorities used broad surveillance power in plot case

June 08, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MISSISSAUGA, Ontario --The disruption of a suspected terrorist cell that was believed to be plotting to take hostages, use truck bombs and even cut off the prime minister's head has shed light on how Canada is fighting terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Despite suggestions by officials in the United States that Canada is lax when it comes to immigration and anti-terrorism laws, Canadian law enforcement agencies enjoy broad surveillance powers.

Indeed, surveillance appeared to have been crucial to the investigation of 17 men, including five minors, accused of plotting a series of attacks against government targets.

The police intercepted communications and tracked the suspects for months, according to The Globe and Mail, a major newspaper. The monitoring continued as the men paid an undercover officer $6,000 for ammonium nitrate fertilizer that the authorities said was intended for use in several powerful truck bombs. The police substituted a safe powder for the fertilizer, according to the newspaper. As surveillance continued, the delivery was made and the men were arrested.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. said yesterday that one of the men had enrolled in a flight training program, Reuters reported.

Until December 2001, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, the agency created to handle terrorist surveillance, was permitted to conduct electronic surveillance of Canadians, including wiretaps, intercepting mail and covert searches, after obtaining a warrant from a judge.

But a new anti-terrorism law enacted at that time also allowed a secretive civilian agency of the Canadian military, the Canadian Security Establishment, to intercept Canadians' private communications on top of its traditional eavesdropping.

That law is now under a mandatory review in Parliament.

The CSE, which has long cooperated with other countries' spy agencies, including the National Security Agency in the United States, can monitor only communications going in or out of the country. The agency also needs authorization from the minister of defense.

But once it has authorization, the CSE's powers are sweeping. Rather than being restricted to intercepting the calls and e-mail of a specific person or group, the agency is allowed under law to broadly monitor "activities" with possible terrorist implications.

Adrian Simpson, a spokesman for the CSE, said the agency was given about six authorizations a year, although he declined to give details.

Wesley Wark, a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto who has been a government consultant on security issues, estimates that about half of the authorizations are to trace hacking attacks on government computers.

Wark added that there was no reliable way to assess the scope of the other, presumably terrorism-related authorizations. He accepts the view of the CSE's outside civilian monitor that the agency acts within the law and generally limits its monitoring of Canadians.

"There's virtually no equivalent of the NSA program," he said, referring to a Bush administration program that includes Americans' domestic communications. "It's not that the CSE is purer. Rather, our resources are much more limited, and we have to focus on a narrower range of targets."

Debate on the 2001 anti-terrorism law is expected to focus on two measures. One is the use of compulsory testimony in so-called investigative hearings, where people can be detained until they provide information. The other is preventive detention, which can be used in cases where someone is suspected of planning terrorist actions.

Last year, the Liberal government began an effort to update surveillance laws and expand them to include technologies such as cell phones, personal data devices and the Internet.

Anne McLellan, who was Canada's justice minister when the anti-terrorism laws were enacted in 2001 and who was the minister of public safety until January, said businesses and civil liberty advocates opposed any extension of police powers to cell phones and the Internet.

Several Internet service providers also strongly objected to the proposed measure, arguing that it would create an unsustainable record-keeping burden.

The new Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to propose similar legislation. McLellan said that it would not represent a trade-off between security and individual rights.

"Nobody is doing this to reduce civil liberties," she said. "It's about balance and how to preserve what we have while we deal effectively with threats."

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