Spy agency conducting surprise workplace visits

OTTAWA — Canada’s spy agency considers surprise workplace visits to be a “legitimate investigative strategy” despite persistent public concerns about the practice, a newly disclosed policy memo says.

OTTAWA — Canada’s spy agency considers surprise workplace visits to be a “legitimate investigative strategy” despite persistent public concerns about the practice, a newly disclosed policy memo says.

The memo surfaced recently further to a complaint lodged by an Ottawa woman who took exception to being visited by Canadian Security Intelligence Service officers at her office.

The previously secret document shows that CSIS makes it a point to suddenly turn up at people’s offices in order to intimidate them, said Paul Champ, the woman’s lawyer.

“It’s a strategy to make people uncomfortable and to coerce them into speaking to CSIS. I think that’s clearly the intent of the policy,” he said.

“It’s about catching people off guard and unsettling them. They know that it causes fear in people, and that’s precisely why they do it.”

The woman, a Canadian of Middle Eastern origin, does not want her name published, given the unwanted attention she has already received, Champ said.

In 2006, CSIS officers made two unannounced visits to the woman’s apartment, followed by a third, scheduled one. She then told the officers she had nothing more to say. But they persisted, first calling her at work, then showing up at her office.

“She found those surprise visits to be very distressing and upsetting,” Champ said.

“Those are the kind of tactics that in some cases may well be acceptable for police officers. But CSIS agents are not police officers. And I find that kind of conduct by intelligence agents to be completely unacceptable.”

The woman subsequently filed a complaint with the watchdog that keeps an eye on CSIS.

In late October 2005, then-CSIS director Jim Judd told senators studying anti-terrorism legislation that “there was nothing ill-intentioned” about the spy service turning up at people’s offices.

“People are quite free to tell our investigators that they prefer to meet elsewhere, at home, a restaurant, a cafe, or in a park,” Judd said. “That is a point we will make better known within the service. We will encourage our investigators to give people the option of picking a venue for investigations.”

The classified November 2005 memo that spells out the spy service’s policy on unannounced workplace visits was drafted by Jack Hooper, then CSIS deputy director of operations. It notes a CSIS committee had reviewed the practice following Judd’s appearance.

“The Committee clearly recognized that the practice of unannounced visits remains a legitimate investigative strategy,” the memo says.

“There are however, potential controversy features associated with this practice and employees are encouraged to exercise good judgment in using this technique and to consider alternative venues.”

Though the memo is more than six years old, there is no indication the policy has been updated.

Surprise workplace visits to members of the Muslim community were common around the time the memo was drafted but have become less frequent in recent years, said Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“We feel that that’s a good thing. However, the fact that this policy is still in place is something that we view with concern because of the impact that it has,” he said.

People are suddenly viewed differently by colleagues after receiving a visit from CSIS at work, Gardee said, adding the memo “should be reviewed and hopefully subject to reconsideration.”

CSIS personnel are trained and expected to be professional, courteous, respectful and discreet to the fullest extent possible, said Tahera Mufti, spokeswoman for the spy service.

“We talk to many Canadians, every day, in a variety of settings, and by far these conversations are generally very cordial and frankly benign.”

Liberal Sen. Joan Fraser, who questioned Judd about the practice in 2005, said the policy memo is somewhat helpful. “But I think I might’ve liked it to go a little further.”

In the world of security, strict rules of etiquette and appointment-making don’t always work, Fraser said. Dropping in on someone’s office unannounced would make sense if there was urgency or the person might be scared off by prior notice.

But she said it should be considered more “as a last resort than a first resort.”