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OTTAWA — Canadians should be concerned but shouldn’t overreact to news that more homegrown extremists and suspected terrorists are believed operating here than ever before, says the RCMP’s top national security officer.
In his first in-depth interview since assuming command of the nascent National Security Criminal Investigations unit, Assistant Commissioner Bob Paulson said more terrorism arrests are expected in coming months.
“The threat we’re facing today is as threatening as it’s ever been,” he said during a hour-long talk in his headquarter’s office this week. “We’re as busy as we’ve ever been and a little busier, frankly,” but he added that the sky is not falling.
“You want Canadians and people who have a role to play to be engaged and you want them to understand the nature of the threat, but you have to balance that against the Chicken Little criticism.
“Even discussing national security investigations publicly and openly runs the risk of being misunderstood of saying, ‘the sky is falling.’ The threat is a significant threat [and] we and other agencies of the government are actively managing that threat.”
He said the increase in national security criminal cases — from 848 last May to an undisclosed but larger number now — is “marginal” and “nothing that people ought to be excessively worried about. That’s what we get paid to do.”
More concerning is the evolving origin of the threat.
“Historically, it’s always been the threat from somewhere else in the world coming over here. But it’s no secret to anyone that a larger part of the threat is the so-called homegrown threat and that’s certainly the lion’s share of the threat that we’re dealing with.”
Homegrown radicalization is now at the top of the government’s national security agenda. Several of the biggest terror attacks and threats in the West in recent years, from the transit attacks in Madrid and London to the foiled “liquid bomb” airline plotters, have come from previously unremarkable, law-abiding citizens largely unknown to authorities.
The official concern is also partly a reflection of concerns about potential blowback from Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan and the terrorism prosecutions of Ottawa’s Momin Khawaja and the pending “Toronto 18” cases.
NSCI has laid charges in two other terrorism cases — the continuing trial of a Quebec man charged with supporting the Global Islamic Media Front, the propaganda arm of al-Qaida, and last year’s arrest of an Ontario man for allegedly collecting money for the outlawed Tamil Tigers, the only person ever charged with terrorist financing in Canada.
The stinging 2006 report and recommendations of the O’Connor Commission into the Maher Arar affair led to a fundamental re-organization of NSCI, with a priority on centralized oversight of national security investigations, including targeting, evidence-based decision-making, information collection and sharing and quality control.
“My desire [is] to re-establish a trust with people,” said the assistant commissioner, whose police career ranges from general patrol duties in British Columbia to senior positions fighting the Hells Angels and organized crime. Now 50, the Lachute, Que., native joined the Mounties in 1986 after a stint as a Canadian Forces pilot.
Since taking over NSCI in May, “I’m very satisfied that we have the business processes and systems that permit me to defend the criticism that we’re loosey-goosey sharing information all the time. The RCMP has pulled out all the stops in terms of implementing O’Connor’s recommendations and there were considerable costs associated to that.”
He also commented on:
• The need for manufacturers of leading-edge communications equipment to “build in a backdoor for authorities who — when properly authorized by the judiciary as we have always had to have been — can get access so that we don’t have to build research and development commensurate with leading state-of-the-art technology.”
In previous cases where judges authorized police to intercept suspects’ electronic communications, “if the gizmo was the latest version, then our tech guys would say, ‘we don’t know where to hook it up.’
“The objectives of justice shouldn’t be defeated by advancements in technology if everybody understands and signs off on the fact that the processes that permit authorizations of the state to eavesdrop or intercept are properly governed.”
• On co-operation with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service: “As good as it’s ever been.”
• On whether he knows why the Americans continue to harbour suspicions of terrorism against Maher Arar. “No.”
• On why there have been no espionage arrests in Canada in recent years, despite repeated statements by CSIS and others that some foreign intelligence services are engaged in aggressive industrial, economic and state-secret spying (and proliferation activities) in Canada:
“Oh yeah, it’s going on. My objective in this program is to bring these cases that come to our attention to resolution through prosecution, that’s my preferred course of action. But there are alternative ways of dealing with some of these threats (such as) disruption, and sometimes we’re forced to do that. You can’t arrest your way out and charge your way out of everything. So sometimes, there’s maybe just confronting people and saying, ‘we’re on to you, cut it out.’ ”
• On the importance of counter-radicalization philosophies and reaching out to Muslim, Sri Lankan, East Indian and other ethnic communities in Canada.
“We are seeing people accepting us, but we continue to face day-to-day-to-day suspicious of our motives. When I was a uniformed police officer, the extent to which I was successful as a criminal investigator was entirely dependent on the contacts I had in the community. And it’s not informants, it’s being able to persuade people that the problems that we face as police are their problems and if people buy in, which they ought to, then you got something.”
But there’s fine line to walk between that and being seen as recruiting sources or spying on the community.
“If the community senses that at all, then it’s ineffective, the trust is gone.”