There’s no record of Canada’s main spy agency informing the Trudeau government of its secretive database that had been housing intelligence on innocent Canadians.
Which is suspicious.
In response to an access to information request filed by VICE News, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service says it was “unable to locate any records” of memos or briefing notes on the secretive Operational Data Analysis Centre.
The centre, which was kept mostly under wraps until a federal court decision in November, 2016, housed reams of data that was collected in the course of various CSIS investigations. During a judicial inquiry, CSIS admitted that it was running advanced data analytics on the trove of information to aid in its investigations.
A court found that the database contained potentially huge amounts of data from innocent Canadians who were never, themselves, under investigation — data that CSIS should have destroyed. The court ruled that process illegal and ordered that the analysis stop.
That decision was made public on November 4, although the ruling itself came a month earlier, which is when it was passed on to CSIS and the minister of justice.
VICE News made its request the same day as the decision was made public — asking for all documents from 2015 to present — and was told that none existed.
Memos are usually prepared by government departments or agencies to either inform another office of their plan of action or to seek approval for it. Briefing notes are usually more detailed breakdowns of the issue at hand. Both are a primary way in which offices, departments, and agencies communicate with each other.
The fact that CSIS did not have a single briefing note or memo pertaining to the program over the course of nearly two years raises the question of whether CSIS even told the new government that the program existed.
When the decision came down, even Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale suggested that he had been mostly in the dark about the program.
“I became aware of the full scope of the issue when the judgment was made available in a preliminary form a couple of weeks ago,” he told reporters after the federal court decision was made public.
The Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, had tasked government lawyers to defend CSIS’ practise of using the data, although it’s not clear how much her office was actually briefed on the program.
Wilson-Raybould’s office refused an interview after the federal court decision, but sent a statement to VICE News saying that her office went to bat for CSIS because they believed its program was legal. “CSIS, in consultation with the Department of Justice, had interpreted the Act as enabling the retention of this sub-set of associated data to allow for important analytic work,” a spokesperson said in November.
Her office said on Wednesday that the minister was briefed on the Operational Data Analysis Centre in relation to the federal court hearing, but could not confirm that she knew of the program prior to that.
A statement from CSIS Director Michel Coloumbe, released in November, reads that the public safety minister of the day was briefed on the program and its core functions in July 2006 and again in 2010, before Trudeau took office.
“Information was also shared over the years with various government stakeholders, including the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), the Privacy Commissioner, including a privacy impact assessment, and the Inspector General of CSIS,” Coloumbe’s statement reads. The latter position no longer exists.
VICE News has requested a copy of that privacy impact assessment, as well as any other powerpoint presentations crafted by the agency pertaining to the program — CSIS has requested between two and four months to finish searching their records before they can provide a response.