Canada’s spy agency criticized

Canadian Press wire service — July 12, 2004
This Access to Information (Canada’s Freedom of Information mechanism) article was picked up by 12 newspapers across Canada including the Toronto Star, Edmonton Journal, Vancouver Sun, La Presse, among others.

Canada’s spy agency is still asking about homeland ties and sexual practices when vetting Canadians pursuing a top-level career in the government – questions some critics consider relics of the Cold War and contrary to multicultural policy.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has been thrust into the public spotlight this summer as the inquiry into the arrest and deportation of Maher Arar unfolds in Ottawa.

Now sections of the Security Screening Investigators Guidebook, obtained under the Access to Information Act, reveal how CSIS field investigators determine an individual’s reliability risks.

The highly personal questions routinely come up when CSIS conducts top-secret security assessments of public service employees for almost all federal government departments. Only the RCMP does its own security screening.

Among the characteristics that CSIS considers a reliability risk are “dual citizenship” and “any family or close continuing relationships with persons who reside in countries of security concern.”

“The document looks like something out of the ’70s, pre-human rights legislation, pre-employment equity legislation,” says Anna Chiappa, executive director of the Canadian Ethnocultural Council, a coalition of more than 30 ethnic and cultural advocacy groups in Canada.

Chiappa also takes issue with the document’s instruction to “establish extent of homeland links: family, friends, homeland political and cultural involvement, financial, property or business interests and use of non-Canadian passports.”

Recent testimony during the Arar inquiry has revealed that people only briefly associated with individuals under investigation can themselves be subjected to scrutiny.

“People should be made aware of the fact that who you speak with, who you meet, may have serious consequences,” Chiappa says, adding the document is inconsistent with the federal policy of multiculturalism.

“We tell people you can be involved in your cultural community, it doesn’t make you any less of a Canadian.”

Chiappa says the CSIS document’s wording “equates political involvement with cultural involvement, almost like the two are the same, which is not the case at all.”

CSIS defends the criteria.

“History and experience have certainly shown that loyalty to one’s native homeland can be very strong and influential,” says Nicole Currier, a CSIS spokeswoman.

“There have been examples of new Canadians trying to get security clearances in order to obtain secrets that they’d be willing to sell or give to their homeland government.”

CSIS declined to disclose the countries considered a security concern, or how many countries were on the list.

Other risky character traits include “greed,” “expectations to be exceedingly well off in a short time” and “expectations well beyond ability.”

Stressful personal problems, noticeable changes in established work patterns and deliberate misrepresentation are also listed as reliability risks.

“The security risks are identified by a number of national and international organizations and professional organizations, and through experience,” Currier says.

CSIS officers interview character witnesses such as neighbours and colleagues, conduct inquiries with foreign agencies and perform credit bureau checks to evaluate a candidate’s reliability risk.

Last year, CSIS conducted 3,578 field investigations for the federal public service, taking an average of 50 days for each candidate.

The agency also performs security screening of candidates for landed immigrant status and Canadian citizenship as well as employees of the Alberta and New Brunswick governments. In addition, it carries out checks on behalf of foreign governments concerning Canadians who wish to move abroad or have access to their classified information.

Criminal conduct, “habitual use of intoxicants to excess” and indications of risky sexual conduct are highlighted in the document.

“Illicit or abnormal sexual behaviour; including prostitution, paedophile (acts), voyeurism, exhibitionism, gross indecency, or bestiality” make someone unreliable in the spy service’s eyes.

The document states that “homosexuality is not indicative of unreliability nor does it represent a bar to obtaining a security clearance.”

But if candidates are secretive about sexual orientation, CSIS advises this could make them “vulnerable to coercion.”

“(CSIS) doesn’t care about what employees . . . are doing in their personal lives or where they come from unless (it) constitutes a risk to Canada,” Currier says.

“It’s a question of ensuring that issues can’t be used for blackmail purposes.”

A gay rights advocate wonders why the document singles out homosexuals as being vulnerable to coercion.

“Someone might be secretive about their (sexual) behaviour whether they were straight or gay,” says Gilles Marchildon, executive director of Egale Canada.

“Would a heterosexual want a great-aunt to know about an affair on their spouse?”

Labour, immigrant and gay rights advocates all say the list of reliability risks is subjective.

“So much is left to the discretion of the officer,” says Edward Cashman, an executive vice-president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

“The wording is naive and vague and gives (CSIS officers) too much leeway to make a decision,” Chiappa says. “Who’s making the decisions and how are they trained?”

Currier says screening investigators take a special course, but she did not disclose the course’s length or whether investigators pass an examination.

Figures concerning individuals denied security clearances are not available.

Complaints against CSIS, including grievances about refusal of a clearance, are investigated by the Security Intelligence Review Committe, a federal watchdog over the spy service.

The field guidelines were last revised five years ago.

“They need to update the criteria. It seems the documents haven’t got with the times,” Cashman says.

Currier says the guidelines are “under constant review and they are changed as appropriate.”