RIGHT MINDED: National insecurity

A culture that refuses to allow Canada’s intelligence service to do its job is putting the safety of Canadian citizens at risk.

Canada’s state intelligence agency, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, has come under attack for defending national interests abroad. Our civilian security apparatus has gone from a defender of human rights to its worst threat, at least in the public eye. This rhetoric typically comes from journalists and civilians with little understanding of CSIS’s mandate or policies.

Richard Fadden, the director of CSIS, highlighted this disturbing national trend in a speech to the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies. Fadden noted that “almost any attempt to fight terrorism by the government is portrayed as an overreaction or an assault on liberty.”

Fadden stated that the media have transformed suspected terrorists into “quasi- folk heroes … photographed with their children, given tender-hearted profiles, and more or less taken at their word when they accuse CSIS or other government agencies of abusing them.” The horrible truth is that Fadden is largely correct.

The myth that Canada cannot suffer from terrorism is preposterous. America is the real target, we reason to ourselves, so why should we be concerned? We forget that Canadian citizens lost their lives in the attacks on the Twin Towers; that the Air India bombing of 1985 killed 280 Canadians; and that the infamous “Toronto 18” plot, foiled in 2006, could have led to one of Canada’s worst political crimes. Canada remains a hotbed for terrorist front corporations, according to CSIS.

Yet this is all brushed aside if we portray terror suspects as victims of government gone wrong. Security is a human right, and we lose it by denying that our lives are at risk. We need to treat terrorism like the monstrous crime that it is, and fight it with every legitimate means available to us.

While suspected terrorists must retain the right to presumption of innocence, balanced perspective is often lost in media obsessed with faulting security policy. The Toronto 18 plotters were characterized as misguided youths, even though their plotting would have killed dozens. Security certificates, which allow CSIS to detain non-Canadians deemed serious security threats, are demonized – even as CSIS has enacted civilian oversight of the security certificate system.

Even Parliament seems to have lost respect for CSIS. A parliamentary motion has recently called for uncensored documents relating to the Afghan detainee controversy. While abuse should be revealed and condemned, the detainee controversy is not as black-and-white as the official opposition makes it out to be. The motion demanding the documents could violate the Security of Information Act, which mandates that CSIS employees are “permanently bound to secrecy.” That act prevents CSIS from saying anything – no matter how much Michael Ignatieff or Jack Layton complains about it. As the Conservative government has rightfully noted, releasing these documents uncensored could seriously harm national security and the safety of Canadians.

Despite this legitimate concern, the opposition (led by Liberal Member of Parliament Derek Lee) has pondered passing a motion holding the government in contempt of Parliament. However, the appointment of Justice Frank Iacobucci to review government documents related to Afghan detainees has somewhat quieted outspoken critics.

When did it become out of vogue to cherish national security? Was it when Congress passed the Patriot Act, or after the Guantanamo Bay controversy? The push for national security was a priority of the Bush administration, and perhaps his methods for pursuing it put a foul taste in our mouths. Even so, activists, journalists, and NGOs often seem to forget that CSIS saves lives. It operates in legal gray zones, but it operates with the intention of protecting our country, and always does so with oversight from civilian agencies and the Ministry of Defence.

Stephen Harper and his government continue to increase financing for the Canadian armed forces while consistently lengthening the penalties for crime. It is those actions that make Canada safer, not the politics of national insecurity.

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