Julian Sanchez: Lessons from the Canadian Terror Arrests?


I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea behind this American Spectator Blog post turned into a mini-meme for defenders of our own NSA’s warrantless wiretap and data mining programs, so perhaps it’s best to nip it in the bud if we can. AmSpec‘s Jed Babbin writes:

Because no one else wants to talk about this we must. The RCMP arrests of some 17 Canadian al-Q wannabes was based on the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service – their equivalent of the NSA – monitoring of e-mails between suspects and international connections, and among the suspects in Canada.
More proof that it works. Are you listening, Sen. Specter?
Now, perhaps you’re among those who believe — and there seem to be not a few who at least purport to — that the sole possible basis for objections to the NSA programs, which circumvent even the most minimal sort of judicial oversight, is the conviction that we just shouldn’t be trying to conduct any sort of surveillance of terrorists. If so, then this is an awesome argument. Otherwise, it looks as though it probably cuts the other way.

Here’s what the Toronto Star article linked by the AmSpec folks says:

The chain of events began two years ago, sparked by local teenagers roving through Internet sites, reading and espousing anti-Western sentiments and vowing to attack at home, in the name of oppressed Muslims here and abroad.
Their words were sometimes encrypted, the Internet sites where they communicated allegedly restricted by passwords, but Canadian spies back in 2004 were reading them. And as the youths’ words turned into actions, they began watching them.
And good work on their part. But was all this achieved by liberating Canada’s intelligence officers from burdensome warrant requirements or oversight protocols that would have prevented them from discovering this suspected terror cell? Apparently not:
Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University, said the surveillance of the Toronto cell shows that it is possible to detect terrorist cells using a system that requires the equivalent of a search warrant.
Canadian officials had to obtain permission from a threat-review committee before investigating Canadian citizens, he said. As a result, he said, all the information collected should be usable in court.
Now, the arrest of the Canadian cell appears to have been the outcome of a long period of surveillance involving extensive international cooperation, so it’s hard to know to what extent due process was observed every step of the way. But it least looks as though the capture of these wannahadeen turned out to be compatible with reasonable checks on state eavesdropping powers.
Julian Sanchez is an assistant editor of Reason.