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The potential negative consequences cannot be overstated

Last week, Jim Bronskill with the Canadian Press reported on the findings in an annual review conducted by the CSIS inspector general, which he obtained via the Access to Information Act. According to that annual review (published in November 2010), CSIS has continued to fail in ensuring the accountability standards set by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2008 in Charkaoui v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), (2008) 2 S.C.R (“Charkaoui II”) are met. Under the Court’s ruling in Charkaoui II, the agency is required to, inter alia, “retain all operational notes, electronic intercepts, and other investigative material”. As reported by the Canadian Press:

During her review, CSIS inspector general Eva Plunkett asked the service for original, hard-copy notes cited in agency reports.

“In a number of cases the service was unable to locate hard copies of the operational notes,” Plunkett wrote.

After further examination, CSIS determined that its own reports were wrong and that no notes had been taken to support the information in them, she found.

The spy service also had trouble figuring out the process for referring to original notes — a problem Plunkett considered “significant.”

“One must know where to look to determine whether operational notes exist and where to find them for retrieval and future reference,” says her review.

Disturbingly, Plunkett found problems relating not only to record-keeping but reporting as well, and noted that “the rate of errors continues to grow”. Again, from the Canadian Press:

Once errors — even small ones such as incorrect interview dates — are introduced, it can result in wrong information being shared or forming the basis for operational decisions, her review says.

“The potential negative consequences that errors of this type could have on service investigations, and on individuals affected by the use of service information, cannot be overstated.” 

Plunkett says accuracy is essential if CSIS is to make fair and balanced use of the information it collects.

“When errors of this nature do come to light, they have a highly detrimental effect on the service’s credibility both with Canadians, the judicial system and with other intelligence agencies.”

This report comes as troubling news to the BCCLA. As we discussed in our most recent post, mistakes made by CSIS can have devastating consequences for individual Canadians. Given the highly secretive nature of intelligence gathering and sharing, Canadians need to have confidence that CSIS is doing its job carefully, accurately, and in an accountable fashion. Accuracy in data collection and document retention is crucial in ensuring accountability, as we saw in the Almrei security certificate case. In light of the intensive intelligence-sharing between CSIS and foreign governments, it goes without saying that there is a great need for CSIS to exercise caution and care in carrying out its duties.

CSIS plays an important role in protecting our national security, but its work must be accomplished in a responsible and scrupulously careful manner. The inspector general’s review serves to remind us that concerns regarding the agency’s practices are still active and require attention.