Security questions (Ottawa Citizen editorial)

posted on September 30, 2009 | in Category Security Certificates | PermaLink

by Unsigned editorial
Source: The Ottawa Citizen
URL: [link]
Date: September 30, 2009

By the time a Montreal judge gave Adil Charkaoui permission last week to cut off the tracking device that has encircled his ankle for more than four years, one of the federal government's main tools to protect Canadians from terrorism was already shredded.

Charkaoui is one of five non-Canadians accused of terrorism links who have been tracked and detained under Canada's security certificate program, and whose cases are now stalled. The program has become so unworkable that it now appears headed for extinction.

No one disputes that governments must have tools to reduce the threat of terrorism. Sometimes this means that governments must be allowed to keep information secret, to protect sources and ensure the integrity of the intelligence-gathering system. But the clumsy application of security certificates is becoming an example of how not to fight terrorism. The federal government should heed the advice of numerous jurists, most recently Beverley McLachlin, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who warned about the dangers of sacrificing human rights and charter protections in the name of counterterrorism. She alluded to tactics "... that may not, in the clearer light of retrospect, be necessary or defensible." The cases of Charkaoui and others suggest that the main effect of these tactics is to erode public trust in the government's security apparatus, which itself represents a threat to security.The Canadian government arrested Charkaoui in 2003, on suspicion of being a sleeper agent for al-Qaeda. Charkaoui's lawyer has argued that the government has known from the beginning that its evidence against Charkaoui was unreliable, allegedly based on declarations from detainees who were tortured.

Does the government have a case? No one knows. And so the courts have had just about enough of the security certificate program -- of the way the program allows the government to restrict individual freedom without having to publicly justify those restrictions.

About three years ago the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the security certificate program, under which neither suspects nor their lawyers have a right to see the evidence against them, was indeed unconstitutional. The federal government subsequently allowed suspects to have special advocates present at closed hearings in which secret intelligence information was divulged. This was meant to strike a balance between the rights of the accused and the need for secrecy to protect the credibility and secrecy of informants. But problems have persisted. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service failed to inform a federal judge that a key informant in the case against another suspected terrorist, Mohamed Harkat, had failed a lie detector test. The judge cited several other instances in which crucial information should have been disclosed, but was not. Harkat has since been released from the strict bail conditions that had kept him under virtual house arrest.

Judges have also criticized CSIS for destroying notes relevant to cases. "What's at stake here isn't just the integrity of the source," Harkat's lawyer Norm Boxall said earlier this year. "What's been put in play here is the integrity of the service."

The government has no choice but to reassess the viability of the security certificate program. It may be some of the men who have been slapped with the certificates really are grave threats to public security. But no longer can the government simply ask us to take its word for it.

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