Independent Journalist Visited by CSIS

Dec 2, 2009

Independent Journalist Visited by CSIS

I got a visit from CSIS on the afternoon of October 30th (I checked; they were not trick-or-treaters). I haven't had time to write up a public report until now.

Two friendly agents, who gave their names as Nancy Demers and Sébastien Lévesque (they also gave me phone numbers, which I am happy to share), showed up at my door in the morning, between 10 and 11. I looked at their badges, which had their names, CSIS, and nothing else.

They asked if they could come in. I said no, and they proposed we get some coffee. I suggested we talk outside. We went to the park across the street. We spoke in French the whole time, save for a few occasions that I forgot a word.

I asked them how they got my name, and they refused to tell me in a number of different ways. I asked them how they got my address, and they eventually said that they had access to several databases. They refused to tell me which ones.

They specifically asked me about Reclaim, the Tar Sands and the Olympics, specifically anti-torch actions in Montreal.

They asked me questions about people going to the Olympics from Vancouver, and asked me if there was anyone I could refer them to. They asked about torch rally actions in Montreal. I said I would not give them any specific information about anything. The conversation shifted to a more philosophical tenor, and they asked me a bunch of questions about what I would and would not support. Like, hypothetically, what would I do if someone were to plant a bomb at the Olympics that would kill athletes (!). I told them in each case that I wouldn't comment on hypotheticals, that it would depend on the situation. I told them that I was opposed to violence, and that I did not know of any plans for violence or sabotage.

They asked me at another point what movements were the most active in Montreal. I told them to read the papers and look at posters.

They kept saying that they were worried about violence. I told them about a number of things they could investigate if they were worried about violence (such as the RCMP, the Montreal Police, missing and murdered Indigenous women, etc...). They said that wasn't their job.

I suggested that they quit their jobs a few times, specifically when they asked how they could gain my trust. They mentioned a bunch of cases (sabotage in France, apparently there was an attempted murder of an oil company exec by an outfit called the IRI -- something résistance internationale -- which I had never heard of) to see what my reaction was.

The conversation at some point shifted to Indigenous struggles, and they for some reason spent a long time trying to convince me that things were improving for native people in Canada, and that the situation wasn't all bad. They either cared or made a show of caring about the fact that I disagreed with them. We talked a bit about Barriere Lake, and I told them more or less what I have written about it publicly. Nancy said she thought the situation was "more complicated" than my description, but I didn't think it was worth my while to attempt to convince her. We got into a bizarre tangent about Mohawk history.

Sébastien asked for my telephone number a number of times. I told him he already had it (because of their access to "various databases"). He seemed to think it was important that I give it to him voluntarily. They asked if they could call me if they had questions about something specific that was going on. I said no. It became pretty clear that they were asking me to become an informant, and that me voluntarily giving them my phone number was a necessary step in the process. They said that they would keep everything I said confidential, and they asked me to do the same. I told them I would not.

Overall, they were very friendly and good-humoured and compared with other encounters I've heard of with CSIS. They actually pointed out a few times how friendly they were being. It seemed clear that they were trying to present a friendly face and ingratiate themselves. They said that their aim was to gather information to better inform the Canadian government, and discuss with me what I would and would not support. On the face of it, they seemed to think I was a someone who would perhaps object to certain kinds of violence or sabotage, and might be willing to cooperate with them if something happened (or was planned) that I objected to.

That said, CSIS visits have multiple functions. On one level, they serve to gather information and recruit informants. On another level, they serve to intimidate people who are politically active, create divisions (around tactical questions, for example), and plant misinformation (as with the hypothetical bombing of athletes).

The bottom line is that this is one of the many tactics that are used to divide people in social movements, and we should have strategies for how to deal with them.

Most importantly, the existence of a state agency with a mandate of spying on people engaged in political activities outside of a judicial framework has no legitimate role in a democratic society. Doubly so when there is no oversight or transparency to their operations.

The targeting of journalists for CSIS visits is, in this context, all the more alarming, given the chilling effect -- second-guessing and paranoia, for starters -- that inevitably results.

In the USA, the Central Intelligence Agency is expressly forbidden by its charter to spy on people domestically. That has not stopped the agency from violating its mandate over long periods of time, specifically when it targeted the anti-war movement during the Nixon years, culminating in its involvement in the Watergate burglary.

In Canada, the government doesn't have to break the rules to spy on its own citizens. They have a government mandate to do so.

I'm certainly aware that talking to CSIS at all is a move some may find objectionable. My rationale was that I wanted to know what they knew, what they were up to and specifically what kind of info they were looking for. And I couldn't resist the opportunity to point out the ridiculousness of their "anti-violence" mandate.

That said, that's what I decided to do with about 2 minutes notice (I literally got dressed before answering the door). I had some idea of what to expect, as I had heard of similar visits taking place in Vancouver.

If people are visited, and the plan isn't to decline to talk, I'd suggest (if possible) having some kind of recording device available. If you for whatever reason want to talk to CSIS when they show up at your door, asking them to make an appointment as opposed to showing up unannounced is probably the best way to proceed, to ensure that you're fully prepared.

Generally, I think that it makes sense to refuse to talk to them, and I plan to do that in the future.

That's all I have to say. Being under surveillance totally harshes my mellow.