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Terror Arrests Reveal Reach of Canadian Surveillance Powers

By Anthony Depalma 
and Ian Austen


The disruption of a suspected terrorist cell that was believed to be plotting to take hostages, use truck bombs and even cut off the prime minister’s head has shed light on how Canada is fighting terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Despite suggestions by officials in the United States that Canada is lax when it comes to immigration and anti-terrorism laws, Canadian law enforcement agencies enjoy broad surveillance powers.

Indeed, surveillance appeared to have been crucial to the investigation of 17 men, including five minors, accused of plotting a series of attacks against government targets.

The police intercepted communications and tracked the suspects for months, according to The Globe and Mail, a major newspaper.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. said on Wednesday that one of the men had enrolled in a flight training program, Reuters reported.

Until December 2001, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, the agency created to handle terrorist surveillance, was permitted to conduct electronic surveillance of Canadians, including wiretaps, intercepting mail and covert searches, after obtaining a warrant from a judge. But a new anti-terrorism law enacted at that time also allowed a secretive, civilian agency of the Canadian military, the Canadian Security Establishment, to intercept Canadians’ private communications on top of its traditional eavesdropping.

That law is now under a mandatory review in Parliament.

The CSE, which has long cooperated with other countries’ spy agencies, including the National Security Agency in the United States, can monitor only communications going in or out of the country. The agency also needs authorization from the minister of defense.

But once it has authorization, the CSE’s powers are sweeping. Rather than being restricted to intercepting the calls and e-mail of a specific person or group, the agency is allowed under law to broadly monitor “activities” with possible terrorist implications.

Last year, the Liberal government began an effort to update surveillance laws and expand them to include technologies like cell phones, personal data devices, and the Internet. Anne McLellan, who was Canada’s justice minister when the anti-terrorism laws were enacted in 2001, and who was the Minister of Public Safety until January, said businesses and civil liberty advocates opposed any extension of police powers to cell phones and the Internet.