Canadian Police Wanted to Tail a Journalist to Find Source of Government Leak

The plan to shadow a La Presse reporter was part of a probe into who gave him a secret document on Adil Charkaoui, a Moroccan-Canadian citizen who was arrested in 2003 under a security certificate and accused of being an al Qaeda sleeper agent.

by Tamara Khandaker
Nov 11 2015, 7:20pm

Image of Adil Charkaoui by Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police had planned to shadow a Montreal reporter to find out who leaked classified information about a suspected terrorist to the press, according to recently released documents.

The plan to tail the La Presse reporter was part of a probe into who gave him a secret document on Adil Charkaoui, a Moroccan-Canadian citizen who was arrested in 2003 under a security certificate and accused of being an al Qaeda sleeper agent.

The Canadian Press published details of the proposed surveillance, which came to light after a Canadian federal court ordered the RCMP to disclose the documents because of similarities to the case of another man, Abfousian Abdelrazik.

Abdelrazik is suing the federal government and seeking compensation for damage caused by unproven allegations that were leaked from inside the government.

"The facts common to both leaks do create a context of relevancy," Judge Simon Noel ruled in May.

"Both the 2007 and 2011 leaks relate to the same discussion. Another common fact is that both leaks were published by journalists of La Presse."

Related: VICE News Battles Canadian Police Over Right to Protect Journalist's Material

While investigating the Charkaoui leak in 2007, Canada's spy agency, known as CSIS, concluded that it came from inside Citizenship and Immigration Canada, but couldn't pin it down to a single source, even through fingerprints and DNA analysis.

That's when they called in the RCMP, who put forward the plan for "Project Standard" — interrogating Citizenship and Immigration Canada employees, while shadowing Joel-Denis Bellavance, the La Presse reporter.

"It is expected that the view questionnaire process will generate communication between the source and the journalist, which should provide a unique opportunity to capture the meet through surveillance, and to identify the source," a 2008 RCMP report said, according to the Canadian Press.

The RCMP believed the leak had a "purpose and a motivation" behind it, which needed to be investigated.

In the end, "due to poor record management and lack of recall or co-operation" from the citizenship and immigration staff, the RCMP couldn't find the source of the leak, said a 2011 report, which didn't say anything about tailing Bellevance.

"I'm in a bit of a shock still," Bellavance told the Canadian Press. "We live in a democratic country. Freedom of the press is a guaranteed freedom."

"The fact that they wanted to do it is still troublesome," he added. "It still is mind-boggling."

The release of the records was a small win for Abdelrazik, who was the subject of a 2011 La Presse story, based on documents prepared by CSIS for Transport Canada which alleged that he'd been discussing plans to hijack and blow up an Air France plane with Charkaoui. The leak happened just as the UN was considering crossing Abdelrazik's name off their terrorist list.

Related: The EU Has Now Slammed Turkey's Imprisonment of Journalists

A few days later, CSIS launched an internal investigation into the breach.

This month, Abdelrazik's lawyers will demand that the RCMP turn over their leak investigation file for the purposes of the civil suit. They argue it's "the only source of information directly relevant to issues at the heart of the present action, including who was responsible for the leak, what responsibilities and duties their position(s) entailed, and what safeguards were in place to prevent such a leak."

But the probe into the leak, which CSIS says threatened national security, is ongoing, and the RCMP says handing the file over could jeopardize it.

Charkaoui, who spent over six years under suspicion of being an al Qaeda sleeper agent and 21 months in jail, and Abdelrazik, who was imprisoned — and tortured, according to him — in Sudan for six years with no help from Ottawa, have both been cleared of any ties to terrorist groups.

Charkaoui is also suing the federal government for the damage caused the leak. The revelations come after a Canadian court lifted a gag order on an attempt by the RCMP to get a VICE News journalist to hand over information about a source, an alleged Islamic State fighter. VICE News is fighting that court order. 

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk