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Canada’s border agency enlisting informants, prompts internal review

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney on September 12, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney on September 12, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Canada’s border agency is enlisting confidential informants, prompting internal concerns about privacy and the risk to sensitive institutions such as churches, schools and Parliament, newly disclosed documents show.

The Canada Border Services Agency uses confidential human sources willing to provide valuable details about the suspicious movement of people or goods, say briefing notes prepared by the agency for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney.

Following a positive initial evaluation, an informant receives an assurance of confidentiality from a certified Confidential Human Source officer and is registered within the border agency as a “CHS program participant,” say the notes, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

An intelligence expert and an opposition MP said Wednesday the program is problematic because the border agency doesn’t have a dedicated watchdog like the ones that oversee the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

“It’s not clear how the minister could actually exercise proper supervision,” said Randall Garrison, the NDP public safety critic.

The notes, portions of which remain secret, say border agency intelligence officers, investigators and inland enforcement officers engage in “covert surveillance” of suspects.

While informants and covert surveillance are widely accepted investigative techniques, they have the potential to touch on privacy interests as well as fundamental institutions “including political, religious, post-secondary and media establishments,” the briefing notes warn.

Border agency studies conducted in 2012 led to proposed policy changes “to directly address these risks,” the documents add.

The border agency planned to clarify management oversight, approval, auditing and reporting for the human source program, as well as introduce “better risk management.”

Concerning covert surveillance, the agency planned to “implement clear restrictions on operations that may be more privacy intrusive.”

Border agency spokeswoman Patrizia Giolti said the mission of the CBSA is to “protect Canada’s borders.”

“We are always looking for new methods to prevent those who threaten the integrity of our immigration system and the safety of Canadians,” she wrote in an email to The Canadian Press.

Wesley Wark, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, said the agency should not be running a human source program on its own — especially without proper outside scrutiny — given the delicate nature of such activities.

The resources should be used to assess intelligence collected by partners like the RCMP and CSIS and apply it to border agency files, he suggested.

“CBSA should be an intelligence user, not an intelligence collector. It has long been recognized that CBSA could be doing a better job at intelligence analysis and dissemination of intelligence to its front-line officers,” Wark said.

“Intelligence collection, while it might seem sexy, is actually a distraction from what should be seen as the main intelligence analysis and reporting roles of CBSA,” he added.

“Leave intelligence to the lawfully constituted professionals.”

Other notes prepared for Blaney point out that some federal agencies have been handed new national security duties in recent years with no corresponding increase in independent review.

“In addition, existing review bodies do not have the explicit legal authority to share information among themselves and/or conduct joint reviews,” the notes say.

In October, the NDP unsuccessfully sought support in the House of Commons to study stronger oversight for the intelligence community.

“There needs to be a good hard look at civilian supervision of intelligence functions,” Garrison said Wednesday.

Liberal public safety critic Wayne Easter has tabled a private member’s bill to create a national security committee of parliamentarians that would have access to top-secret information, reviving an idea proposed by the Paul Martin government.

© The Canadian Press, 2014