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Caught on Campus
CSIS gets go-ahead from above
By John Intini
The Canadian Association of University Teachers is worried a recently uncovered decision may increase the powers of Canada's national surveillance agency on university campuses.
Fatima Abbasi, assistant to the media relations spokesperson at the solicitor general's office, confirmed former solicitor general Herb Gray changed the Canadian Security Intelligence Service's policy in 1997.
Abbasi said the change allows the director of CSIS an arms-length organization of the solicitor general's office to approve certain activities involving undercover human sources on Canadian campuses, but only in extreme cases. The original agreement, which dates back to 1963, said all actions on campuses required approval directly from the solicitor-general.
According to Abbasi, the change remains part of a procedure by the current solicitor general, Lawrence MacAulay. Abbasi added in all cases, the solicitor general's approval is still required and this action is used only in matters of extreme urgency.
James Turk, executive director of CAUT, said he became aware of the change to the policy earlier this month via an access to information request, which can permit the viewing of certain censored government documents.
Turk said the change outlined in the report is threatening.
"[Universities] are places were fundamental questions are answered and where critical thought is encouraged," he said. "The kind of academic freedom, openness, tolerance and diversity of views is threatened if people are going to have to look over their shoulder wondering if there is an informer sitting in the next seat on surveillance.
"It undermines the fundamental purpose of the university," he said.
Turk added he understands CSIS' need to investigate, but said a series of checks and balances at the government level was necessary to properly run the system.
"There has to be a public check. The same way if a police officer wants to search your house, he or she has to get a warrant if they want to come in," he said. "Now apparently there is no public check with what the security service does."
Rob Lambert, CSIS spokesperson, said the change was one of procedure and not a structural adjustment. "There are no loosening or expanding of powers. It was a procedural aspect," he said.
He also added it is still necessary to notify the solicitor general in all instances for approval at the soonest possible time upon which a source has been contacted or deployed.
Lambert added CSIS is not allowed to investigate activities constituting lawful advocacy, protests or dissent. "The service only investigates activities of individuals whom it has reasonable grounds to suspect constitute a threat to the security of Canada."
Such activities include terrorism and industrial espionage, Lambert said.
Although he said universities remain an important place in protecting society, the university cannot be a sanctuary for illegal activity.