Prior to 1984 security intelligence in Canada was the purview of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Security Service. However, in the 1970s there were allegations that the RCMP Security Service had been involved in numerous illegal activities. As a result of these allegations, in 1977, Justice David Macdonald was appointed to investigate the activities of RCMP Security Service. The resulting investigation, known as the MacDonald Commission, published its final report in 1981, with its main recommendation being that security intelligence work should be separated from policing, and that a civilian intelligence agency be created to take over from the RCMP Security Service.
On June 21, 1984, CSIS was created by an Act of Parliament. At the time it was also decided that the activities of this new agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, should be subject to both judicial approval for warrants, as well as general review by a new body, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, as well as the office of the Inspector General (which was disbanded in 2012). Its de facto existence began on July 16 under the direction of Thomas D'Arcy Finn.
At first, the main emphasis of CSIS was combating the activities of various foreign intelligence agencies operating in Canada. For example, it has been engaged in investigating economic espionage involving Chinese operations throughout Canada. While the threat posed by foreign intelligence agencies still remain, CSIS over the years has focused more and more on the threat to Canadian security and its citizens posed by terrorist activity.
CSIS is Canada's lead agency on national security matters and for conducting national security investigations and security intelligence collection. CSIS collects, analyzes intelligence, advises the Government of Canada on issues and activities that may threaten the security of Canada and its citizens. These threats include terrorism, espionage and foreign interference in Canadian affairs, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and information security threats. The agency is also responsible for the security screening program.
There is no restriction in the CSIS Act on where CSIS may collect "security intelligence" or information relating to threats to the security of Canada. The agency may collect information on threats to Canada or Canadians from anywhere in the world. While CSIS is often viewed as a defensive security intelligence agency it is not a domestic agency. CSIS officers work domestically and internationally in their efforts to monitor and counter threats to Canadian security.
There is a distinction between "security intelligence" and "foreign intelligence". Security intelligence pertains to national security threats (e.g., terrorism, espionage). Foreign intelligence involves information collection relating to the political or economic activities of foreign states. According to Section 16 of the CSIS Act, the agency collects this type of "foreign intelligence" within Canada.
CSIS is neither a police agency nor is it a part of the military. As an intelligence agency, the primary role of CSIS is not law enforcement. Investigation of criminal activity is left to the RCMP and local (provincial, regional or municipal) police agencies. CSIS, like counterparts such as the United Kingdom Security Service (MI5) and the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), is a civilian agency. CSIS is subject to review by the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) as well as other legislative checks and balances. The agency carries out its functions in accordance with the CSIS Act, which governs and defines its powers and activities.
Canadian police, military agencies (see Canadian Forces Intelligence Branch), and numerous other government departments may maintain their own "intelligence" components (i.e. to analyze criminal intelligence or military strategic intelligence). The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade maintains a Security and Intelligence Bureau to review and analyze overtly acquired information. The bureau plays a coordinating and policy role. While not an intelligence agency, it is responsible for the security of Department of Foreign Affairs personnel around the world. However, these agencies are not to be confused with the more encompassing work of larger more dedicated "intelligence agencies" such as CSIS, MI5, MI6, or the CIA.
As Canada's contributor of human intelligence to the Five Eyes, CSIS works closely with the intelligence agencies of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Under the post–World War II Quadripartite (UKUSA) Agreement, intelligence information is shared between the intelligence agencies of these five countries.
Permission to put a subject under surveillance is granted by the Target Approval and Review Committee.
Security Liaison Officers (SLOs) of CSIS are posted at Canadian embassies and consulates to gather security-related intelligence from other nations. This information may be gathered from other national intelligence agencies, law enforcement services and other sources. SLOs also assess potential immigrants to Canada for security issues.
CSIS has been named one of "Canada's Top 100 Employers" by Mediacorp Canada Inc. for the years of 2009–2011, and was featured in Maclean's newsmagazine.
CSIS headquarters is located in Ottawa, Ontario and is responsible for the overall operations. Regionally, Canada is broken down into six subordinate regions; the Atlantic, Quebec, Ottawa, Toronto, Prairie, and British Columbia Regions.
These regions are responsible for investigating any threat to Canada and its allies as defined by the CSIS Act. They liaise with the various federal, provincial, municipal and private sector entities found within their areas of responsibility. They also conduct various outreach programs with different community and cultural groups, universities, and private sector organizations in an effort to provide a better understanding, and to clear up any misunderstandings of what CSIS' role is. All these regions also border the United States and they therefore maintain contact with their U.S. federal counterparts.
The Atlantic Region encompasses the four Atlantic provinces (Nova Scotia (NS), New Brunswick (NB), Newfoundland and Labrador (NL), and Prince Edward Island (PEI) and as such is the smallest of the six CSIS regions. Its main office is located in Halifax, with two district offices in Fredericton and St. John's.
As its name implies, this region is responsible solely for the province of Quebec (QC). Its main office is in Montreal, with one district office in Quebec City.
These two regions (except for NW Ontario) are responsible for operations in Ontario. There are four district offices located in Niagara Falls, Windsor, Downtown Toronto and Toronto Pearson International Airport.
Geographically, this represents the largest of the six regions and encompasses the area of Ontario north and west of Thunder Bay, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the three northern territories of the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. The regional office is located in Edmonton with three district offices located in Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary.
As its name implies this region is responsible for the province of British Columbia. Its main office is located in downtown Burnaby with a district office at the Vancouver International Airport.
The activities of CSIS are regularly reviewed on behalf of Parliament by the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC). It is also under the portfolio of the federal Minister of Public Safety. SIRC have access to all CSIS information, classified and open, with the exception of Cabinet Confidences. The Office of Inspector General was disbanded in 2012, whose previous function was to provide an annual classified report on CSIS' operational activities for the Minister.
In several instances, CSIS has been accused of misrepresenting facts to the Courts. In 2013, the CSIS was censured by Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley for deliberately misleading Canada's Federal Court to make it possible for them to allow other agencies to spy on Canadians abroad, which is not allowed by Canadian law. “Justice Mosley has found that CSIS breached its duty of candour to the Court by not disclosing information that was relevant,” the Federal Court press released statement said.
CSIS has also been involved in cases where evidence has been mishandled or omitted from the Courts. In 2009, it was alleged that the service did not disclose information that their confidential informants, which CSIS had been relying on to gather information about their targets, were either deceptive, or failed lie-detector tests. This was not an isolated case, and in several other instances, the agency mishandling of evidence has also called for investigation.
CSIS has, at times, come under criticism, such as for its role in the investigation of the 1985 Air India bombing. The Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182, headed by Justice John Major, is underway. Two Canadian courts have publicly criticized CSIS for destroying wiretap evidence. One court impressed upon the importance of wiretap evidence from CSIS in establishing guilt. The second focused on its exculpatory value.
From 1988 to 1994, CSIS mole Grant Bristow infiltrated the Canadian white-supremacist movement. When the story became public knowledge, the press aired concerns that he had not only been one of the founders of the Heritage Front group, but that he had also channelled CSIS funding to the group.
In 1999, classified documents were stolen from the car of a CSIS employee who was attending a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game. The Security Intelligence Review Committee reportedly investigated this incident.
On September 18, 2006, the Arar Commission absolved CSIS of any involvement in the extraordinary rendition by the United States of a Canadian citizen, Maher Arar. The Commission found that U.S. authorities sent Arar to Jordan and then Syria (his country of birth) based on incorrect information which had been provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to the U.S. government. Arar was held by the Syrians for one year and was tortured. The sole criticism of CSIS levelled by the Commission was that the agency should do more to critically examine information provided by regimes which practice torture.
On March 31, 2009, CSIS lawyer and advisor Geoffrey O'Brian told the Committee on Public Safety and National Security that CSIS would use information obtained by torture if it could prevent another attack such as 9/11 or the Air India bombing. Testifying before the same committee two days later, Director of CSIS Jim Judd said that O'Brian "may have been confused" and "venturing into a hypothetical", and would send the committee a clarifying letter. Two weeks later, the CSIS announced that Judd would be retiring in June, five months before the end of his five-year term.
CSIS has come under attack on a number of occasions for what is seen by some as very aggressive tactics. A vociferous critic of the Service, Lawyer Faisal Kutty, writes as follows: "Showing up at homes and workplaces unannounced; speaking with employers; offering money and favors for "information"; intimidating and threatening newcomers; questioning about specific institutions and individuals; inquiring about a person’s religiosity; and discouraging people from engaging lawyers are some of the recurring themes that I have come across from clients. The problem is so severe that the Council on American Islamic Relations (Canada) has distributed almost 30,000 Know Your Rights guides and organized 27 workshops across the country on dealing with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)."
Prominent Canadian national security lawyer Barbara Jackman has also been critical, categorizing the research by CSIS as "sloppy" and that its officers are "susceptible to tunnel vision."