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Canada's 'untouchable' spies

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 19/07/2017
Canada's spies are, in effect, 'The Untouchables' and the existing parliamentary and impotent quasi-judicial oversight mechanisms meant to keep them in check are a mirage, writes Mitrovica [Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera Canada's spies are, in effect, 'The Untouchables' and the existing parliamentary and impotent quasi-judicial oversight mechanisms meant to keep them in check are a mirage, writes Mitrovica [Reuters]

Canada's spy service is a "rat hole".

That blunt, malicious description of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was not proffered by an invective-hurling anarchist, but by Michel Simard , a 34-year veteran police and intelligence officer in 2000. 

At the time, I was the so-called "national security reporter" for a Canadian newspaper - a stock term I loathe since it implies that reporters are an appendage of sorts of the security state. 

In any event, Simard agreed to speak to me on the record about the near mutiny he led enveloping CSIS and its vindictive leadership in the context of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit launched by more than 100 intelligence officers against the security service for back pay, bonuses and benefits arising from their decision to move to the new civilian spy service from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the early 1980s.

As if to prove his point, Simard was suspended immediately by the senior CSIS officers at whom he had publicly pointed an accusatory finger and who, not surprisingly, insisted that he had only been placed on "special administrative leave". (Subsequently, Simard successfully appealed  against his suspension before retiring.)

Though CSIS may have attempted to muzzle Simard, scores of other intelligence officers agreed to talk to help strip away the many myths associated with the bloated, capricious bureaucracy and the largely pedestrian talents who populate it and, in so doing, reveal the espionage agency's incriminating modus operandi.

This led to a pile of front-page stories and a thick book that, taken together, laid bare the rampant corruption, nepotism, law-breaking and discrimination that is endemic not only at CSIS but arguably every other "intelligence" service - an oxymoron, if there ever was one - and the impunity that spies enjoy in the malleable and exculpatory name of "national security".

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Canada's spies are, in effect, "the Untouchables" and the existing parliamentary and impotent quasi-judicial oversight mechanisms meant to keep them in check are a mirage, intended to convince the gullible that the rule of law and criminal code still apply.   

In the years since the publication of my expose in 2002, this overarching thesis has been corroborated by other reporting.   

On cue, word emerged last week of yet another lawsuit filed by yet another band of CSIS officers against a spy service that its apologists in politics, academia and punditry claim is a shining model of probity, already burdened by too many prying eyes.  

This time the accusers, however, remained anonymous, but their accusations had a chilling and disturbing ring.

In a $35m lawsuit, five intelligence officers and analysts allege that CSIS is a cesspool of Islamophobia, homophobia, sexism and racism where anti-Muslim slurs and gay-bashing are an institutional norm and tolerated by supposedly enlightened CSIS managers in 2017.

The 54-page lawsuit drips with one sorry episode after another of bigotry that, once again, puts an emphatic line to the absurd notion that CSIS has, in the years since its inception in 1984, become one of Canada's top 100 employers. 

One Toronto-based intelligence officer who is gay and has a Muslim partner alleges, for example, that he received the following email from a CSIS manager: "Careful your Muslim in-laws don't behead you in your sleep for being homo". 

For vile measure, another top CSIS officer allegedly added: "You're just a fag hiding in your little corner sobbing." 

Here's more of the litany of CSIS-sanctioned bile contained in the lawsuit:

  • A Muslim analyst smeared as a "sand monkey" by his boss.
  • A veteran Muslim analyst encouraged by her superior to "complain to Allah".
  • A Muslim intelligence officer who wears a hijab under constant suspicion by her colleagues.
  • A female black intelligence officer told: "It's people like you the Service like to promote."
  • A senior CSIS officer shouting "all Muslims are terrorists" at a social function.
  • A Muslim officer reporting that during training for an overseas assignment a colleague said: "Muslims and armed weapons are a bad mix."

A lot of Canadians and several high-profile politicians were "shocked" by the shameful allegations. They shouldn't be.

The graphic portrait of a spy service-cum-frat house rife with copious on-the-job drinking, dominated by an old white-boys culture that considers it de rigueur to tar homosexuals as "fag boys" and Muslims as disloyal, closet "terrorists" is, regrettably, not new, nor is it the slimy work of a smattering of "bad apples". 

For much of my career as an investigative reporter, I issued repeated and detailed warnings that CSIS is indeed a "rat hole" brimming with venal bureaucrats who know they have immunity from any real measure of accountability because of their "secret" work. 

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The powers-that-be have, for decades, not only knowingly permitted but, by virtue of their unconscionable silence and somnolence, countenanced this signature and disgraceful behaviour and, as a result, allowed it to fester and thrive.   

Like Simard and company, these latest CSIS officers and analysts went up the chain of command - to no avail.

And like Simard and company, they are seeking redress outside the established political and oversight instruments because they well understand these "checks and balances" are seen as little more than an irritating nuisance and are routinely treated with overt contempt inside CSIS's insular, haughty orbit.

In response to the most recent lawsuit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his hand-picked top spy trotted out the usual bromides about getting " to the bottom" of the lengthy indictment and CSIS "does not tolerate harassment, discrimination or bullying under any circumstance".  

Predictably, Trudeau has entrusted the spy service with investigating itself. This pat prescription should reassure everyone at CSIS that no one at the security service will be punished or lose their job for libelling their colleagues as would-be "terrorists" or "fags".  

How do I know?

Fact: Not one CSIS officer has ever been convicted of a criminal offence during the 33 years the spy service has been in business. Not one.

There are only two conceivable explanations for this: First, CSIS has historically hired saints who, without fail, abide by the rules and law; or, perhaps much more plausibly, intelligence officers are comfortably aware that as long as they remain faithful to the service's unofficial motto - "Lie, deny, then act surprised" - they're safe from any personal or professional liability.

So here's what I suspect might happen. The five officers and analysts will be pressed to settle out of court to spare CSIS future exposure and embarrassment. In return, they will pocket some money - later rather than sooner.

(In this regard, it's worth noting that members of other nations' national security apparatus, including black FBI agents , have often gone to court as well to win restitution for the systemic abuse and racism they endured in the workplace.)

Despite an apology they may or may not ultimately receive, their careers will certainly be over. The victims of a toxic environment have become toxic themselves.

Meanwhile, the congenital Islamophopbia, homophobia, sexism and bigotry that prompted these public servants finally to go public will remain stubbornly entrenched at CSIS, and the spooks who enabled, participated in, and relished such deplorable conduct will happily continue to work for the service, confident they are in fact "the Untouchables".    

Andrew Mitrovica is an award-winning investigative reporter and journalism instructor.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.         


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