After 9/11 the US set about enacting, mere days later, the provisions of the hard-hitting Patriot Act that has since become the bane of existence for privacy critics. The sweeping bill didn't give birth to just PRISM, but an expansion of the modern national security state as we know it.
Coupled with the terrorist attack in Montreal on Monday, yesterday's horrific events in Ottawa—when a gunman shot and killed a soldier standing guard over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before storming parliament, guns blazing—Canada will never be the same, either. Questions are already arising about new surveillance legislation and talk of enhanced powers for the nation's spy agency.
Ironically, a new amendment meant to empower intelligence services tracking terror suspects was expected to be tabled in parliament this week. Though the Tories have a majority in the House, the latest events in Ottawa might ease the tensions with the public surrounding the passing of any amendments, as a new anti-terror agenda seems on the horizon. Meanwhile, CF-18 fighters are poised to begin bombing campaigns in Iraq against ISIS forces, which counts Canadian jihadists among them.
Days before the earlier attacks of Martin "Ahmad" Rouleau devastated the nation, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney told reporters that the new legislation was on its way to beef up powers for the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service.
According to Blaney, the Harper government will be trying to amend the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act to empower the intelligence agency with new sweeping spy powers and an added ability to share that intelligence with its allies in the Five Eyes (a shadowy international intelligence collective with Britain, the US, Australia, and New Zealand).
"The threat from terrorism is now more complex and diffuse," said Blaney. "Now more than ever, a motivated individual or group of extremists with access to technology can do significant harm to Canada from thousands of miles away."
There's no question Canadian ISIS recruits are coming from places like Alberta, or even Windsor, seduced with the extremist ideologies that now play out like advertisements on social media websites. The online tentacles of foreign jihadist groups are already known to have dragged Canadians into conflict zones to fight as militants.
To spies, those threats can just as easily remain domestic. After all, as one former CSIS spy told me, "we know (ISIS) have been capable of recruiting. So if they're capable of recruiting people who have left the country to fight with them, we might assume they're capable of telling new recruits to 'stay put, we're going to tell you what to do in Canada.'"
One Canadian Youtube star active on social media, now fighting in Iraq and Syria with ISIS, told us in June, "what's the benefit of using social media if I'm not using it to recruit?" Whatever propaganda games ISIS is playing, it's working, because westerners are still flocking abroad.
Tracking new recruits who are inspired to perform so-called "lone-wolf" attacks is a legitimate concern for intelligence agencies. If the 'radicalizing' occurs outside of extended jihadist networks, signals intelligence agencies will find it tougher to surveil potential attackers—since they likely wouldn't pop up into the traditional national security net.
But does that really mean intelligence agencies should be able to expand their powers in favour of crushing personal liberties? Domestic police forces are already given the ability to crack down on suspected militants, confiscating their passports if those individuals are a flight risk to places like Syria. Some suspected terrorists have already been on trial in secret courts, or shipped off to be tortured—as in the case of Maher Arar—with shoddy intelligence vouching against them.
The threat from terrorism is now more complex and diffuse
Another development in the latest reported attempted amendments will be to allow intelligence agencies to withhold the moles or informants from cross examination by prosecutors and judges during court proceedings, thereby making secret trials even more secretive.
More importantly, the new amendment might also allow CSIS—an agency with a tight leashed domestic intelligence mandate—to behave more like the globetrotting CIA, something the Canadian court system has already ruled against. In fact, in that same case, CSIS was accused of attempting to empower itself with expanded snooping powers on both online and offline activities of Canadians abroad.
Increasing the scope of operations for Canada's spooks even gives Conservative Members of Parliament a scare. Brent Rathergeber, a Tory MP from Alberta, told the CBC he fears the latest terror threats will "provide cover for the government to expand the roles of CSEC and CSIS, and what they share with the Five Eyes."
The question now is, at the beginning of the week, the impending and controversial legislation already had one likely ISIS-inspired attack to gain the support of Canadians. But now, with the echoes of shots still ringing from the Parliament buildings, you have to wonder if a collective paranoia over domestic terrorism will lull Canadians into expanding powers for domestic surveillance. Especially when social media chatter is already linking the shooting suspect Michael Zehaf-Bibeau to Islamic State-linked Twitter accounts.
Just yesterday, before the incident in Ottawa, Glenn Greenwald published a piece railing against the Canadian "right-wing" government ushering in new surveillance powers on the heels of supposed terrorist attacks—something he said was overblown by government parlance and fear-mongering.
"(T)he national mood and discourse in Canada is virtually identical to what prevails in every western country whenever an incident like this happens: shock and bewilderment that someone would want to bring violence to such a good and innocent country," said Greenwald. In the same piece the former Guardian reporter said the attack is being seized upon by the Harper government to "promote its fear-mongering agenda over terrorism" and pass new spy legislation.
For its part, as Colin Freeze in the Globe and Mail reports, CSIS said its spy operations of terror suspects are constantly being undermined by judges who invoke "civil liberties" to toss a case. Which, frankly is an interesting criticism given that civil liberties is what this nation is founded upon and what separates it from the repressive insurgents we've bombed.
Last night Stephen Harper spoke to the nation in what was, ostensibly, his "Bush" moment—speaking to the nation after one of the most shocking terrorist attacks in its history, rallying citizens behind his leadership. Predictably he said "we will not be intimidated" by terrorists, adding that, "in fact, this will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts, and those of our national security agencies, to take all necessary steps to identify and counter threats and keep Canada safe here at home."
And who knows, that might just mean new legislative trinkets for CSIS to surveil terror suspects, without pesky judges reminding them of civil liberties.