Court lets Canadian spies snoop on targets overseas

Published On Wed Oct 07 2009
Joanna Smith
Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA–Canadian spies have gained new powers to eavesdrop on so-called homegrown terrorism suspects travelling overseas in a court ruling that opened a small window onto the world of high-tech international espionage.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service obtained warrants last November that allowed the use of "intrusive investigative techniques and information collection" within Canada for up to a year to monitor two unnamed Canadian suspects considered a threat to national security, according to documents the Federal Court released Tuesday.

The agency wanted to continue tracking the suspects when they left the country but an earlier court ruling would have prevented CSIS from intercepting communications of Canadian citizens overseas without asking the permission of the countries where the surveillance would take place.

CSIS considered the matter "urgent" and asked the Federal Court to let it happen anyway.

Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley gave the go-ahead for three months in January, renewed the warrants for another nine months in April and finally explained his decision in a partially censored ruling written Monday.

The ruling is a legal compromise involving some high-tech help from the Communications Security Establishment, a shadowy arm of the Department of National Defence filled with code-breakers and code-makers that collects communications on anyone anywhere in the world in the name of Canadian foreign policy, military and economic interests.

CSIS can spy on Canadians but could not do so beyond its borders. CSE can collect intelligence in foreign countries but cannot operate in Canada and must leave Canadian citizens alone. Mosley ruled the problem could be solved without violating any laws if the two agencies worked together.

The ruling allows the court to issue warrants for the CSE to monitor Canadians overseas because the technology is "controlled from within Canada."

Meanwhile CSE, which is already allowed to provide technical assistance to federal law enforcement and security agencies, would only be collecting the data while CSIS would be in charge of the actual spying.

The ruling gives Canadian intelligence officials greater powers but also forces the court to re-examine the issue on a case-by-case basis.

The details of the warrants sought are heavily censored but at one point in the publicly available version of his ruling Mosley notes the judge who presided over a 2007 warrant application – the one cited as preventing CSIS from wiretapping overseas without permission from the countries involved – "contemplated intrusive activities in foreign jurisdictions … that are not being sought in the present application."–court-lets-canadian-spies-snoop-on-targets-overseas

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