by Isabel Vincent
In the early 1990s, when I was researching a book on Latin-American terrorist groups and their Canadian links, a source at Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), told me (in an off-the-record conversation, of course) that I had accumulated more information than the agency itself had on two Canadians suspected of kidnapping a high-profile businessman in Brazil. As a young reporter working on a shoestring budget in Brazil and Canada, I was stunned by the admission. Surely, CSIS knew more than I did. But, after reading Andrew Mitrovica's astonishing new book, Covert Entry: Spies, Lies and Crimes Inside Canada's Secret Service, I'm now convinced my intelligence source was correct. A celebrated investigative journalist who has worked for the CBC, CTV and The Globe and Mail, Mitrovica has produced a damning portrayal of the inner-workings of Canada's premier spy organization and what he describes as its rather ineffectual watchdog organization, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC). The civilian spy agency, which Canadians believe to be "built on a foundation of integrity, professionalism and profound respect for the rights and liberties of every Canadian," is in fact rife with corruption and cronyism, Mitrovica argues. Furthermore, he reminds his reader throughout the book that some CSIS agents regularly commit criminal acts, which range from theft to fraud, in order to spy on their targets.
Their actions often go unreported, Mitrovica notes, because the agency is able to invoke "the interests of national security" to prevent any serious investigation. Mitrovica's allegations are astonishing and should send shockwaves through the federal government and anyone who has ever worried about the protection of their civil liberties in a democracy. They range from CSIS agents intercepting the mail to spy on union organizers and entering private residences and businesses without search warrants, to using government-financed safe houses in Toronto and Ottawa to put up their university-aged children and double-dipping on their expense-account statements. Mitrovica even details a rather comical incident in which a CSIS agent, eager to get his teenage daughter a position with the RCMP, contracts a lower-ranking member of the spy agency to steal a copy of the RCMP entrance exam. Such incidents may seem petty transgressions for Canada's spies¨who, after all, are charged with much more important tasks, such as ferreting out terrorists in the wake of Sept 11. But, based on the bungling incompetence of some of CSIS's most elite spies (more Keystone Kops than James Bond) documented in this book, it is amazing the agency is able to get anything done. "Is the service up to the job?" Mitrovica poses the question at the beginning of his book, noting the agency's incompetence may be putting the lives of thousands at risk. As partial proof, he cites the agency's failure to apprehend Ahmed Ressam, a 33-year-old Algerian in Montreal, who plotted to carry out a terrorist scheme to blow up the Los Angeles Airport at the dawn of the millennium. A U.S. Customs agent eventually stopped Ressam as he attempted to cross into Washington state from British Columbia in mid-December, 1999. Mitrovica's main source is a Toronto teacher named John Farrell, who worked with CSIS for nearly 10 years in the 1990s. A former petty criminal who grew up in a tough, east-end Toronto neighbourhood, Farrell was initially hired as a mail spy to intercept communications addressed to CSIS targets, such as neo-Nazi sympathizers, suspected Sikh extremists and union leaders, among others. Farrell proved a valuable tool when CSIS agents needed to get things done. In addition to stealing the RCMP entrance exam, he also broke into a retired CSIS agent's car without a warrant and stole notebooks that might have proved embarrassing to the entire security apparatus, had they been made public. The book follows Farrell from convicted criminal to one of CSIS's most valued and trusted employees, although, in the end, CSIS denied he had been on its payroll and allegedly refused to reimburse him for some of his services.
Angered at the agency's behaviour, Farrell decided to go public with his information about the spy agency. "If one undeniable truth has emerged from Farrell's long journey in the world of this country's intelligence service, it is this: He was casually ordered to break the law in pursuit of suspected villains," Mitrovica writes. Farrell is not the only source for Mr. Mitrovica's book. In an epilogue, he lists some 88 others, many of them current and former employees of Canada Post and CSIS who did not want to be identified. Farrell's account of the inner workings of CSIS needs to be properly investigated and perhaps this book will spur politicians and others to call for a probe into the spy agency. For, as Mitrovica rightfully notes, "if the government and its agents are permitted to unilaterally subvert the rule of law without fear of consequence or censure, the repercussions on our democratic system will be incalculable." ˛