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Updated: Mon, 03 Feb 2014 15:44:17 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

CSIS and CSEC spy chiefs to face public grilling today



John Forster, chief of the Communications Security Establishment Canada, says he won't comment on a CBC News report that Canada aided U.S. spying during the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto. CBC

John Forster, chief of the Communications Security Establishment Canada, says he won't comment on a CBC News report that Canada aided U.S. spying during the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto. CBC

Canada's security chiefs are to appear before a Senate committee Monday afternoon in the wake of recent reports that raise questions about intelligence-gathering activities in Canada and abroad.

The heads of Canada's two spy agencies, CSEC and CSIS, as well as the prime minister's security adviser, are scheduled to appear before the Senate committee on national security and defence. The meeting is to begin at 4 p.m. ET. CBCNews.ca will livestream the proceedings. 

Attending the meeting will be John Forster, chief of the Communications Security Establishment, which is Canada's cybersecurity agency; Michel Coulombe, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the country's primary intelligence agency; and Stephen Rigby, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's national security adviser.

This meeting comes just days after CBC News reported that CSEC used airport Wi-Fi to track Canadian travellers, according to secret documents extracted by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The meeting is part of the Senate committee's "ongoing responsibility" to call in authorities responsible for intelligence on behalf of Canadians once a year, said committee chair Senator Daniel Lang. 

In an interview with the CBC's Hannah Thibedeau, Lang said the question of whether intelligence activities are impinging upon the privacy rights of Canadians — such as with the recent revelations that airport Wi-Fi data was collected — will be on the table.

"The basic issue really comes down to the question of these particular agencies being able to do what we ask them to do and, at the same time, ensure Canadians' personal privacy is being respected and that Canadian laws and policies are being adhered to," Lang said.

Canadians face 'threats'

Part of that, Lang said, is understanding the types of threats Canadians face.

"I don't think that Canadians are aware, to the extent that they should be, of the very real terrorist threats that are going on day by day as far as Canada is concerned," Lang said. 

"This is one of the forums that that message can be conveyed to Canadians to ensure our security is being taken care of and adequately taken care of." 

Furthermore, Lang said, this is "parliamentary accountability" for the heads of Canada's spy agencies — an opportunity for security officials to explain themselves and for Canadians to listen in.

Opposition members in the House of Commons have long demanded more parliamentary oversight of the country's national security agencies.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris tabled a motion last fall to create a parliamentary committee to determine the best way to oversee CSEC and CSIS. The motion was defeated.

Somewhat similar to Harris's motion, Liberal public safety critic Wayne Easter will table a motion in the House tomorrow to order CSEC to end all illegal monitoring of Canadians and increase proper oversight of the cybersecurity agency via a national security parliamentary committee.

'Evading simple questions'

Last week, the interim privacy commissioner released a report calling for an overhaul of Canada's privacy legislation and improvement of the capability of spy agency watchdogs. 

Opposition MPs continued to question Defence Minister Rob Nicholson about the information being collected.

Harris said Nicholson is "evading simple questions" about Canada's national security agencies.

"On Friday and again today, the minister refused to say whether CSEC had been conducting domestic operations. Canadians are worried their government is spying on them. Will the minister now tell us, has this Communications Security Establishment been collecting information on Canadians at our airport? Yes or no?" Harris said.

Nicholson didn't answer Harris's question, but said the commissioner of CSEC, the agency's watchdog, issued a statement Friday about the agency's respect of privacy.

"[Jean-Pierre Plouffe] praised CSEC's chiefs who have spared no effort to install within CSEC a culture of respect for the law and for the privacy of Canadians," Nicholson said.

Nicholson said Plouffe also said "that past commissioners have reviewed CSEC metadata activities and found them to be in compliance with the law and be subject to comprehensive and satisfactory measures to protect the privacy of Canadians."

Easter accused Nicholson of playing with words in replying to questions.

"When Canadian citizens transferring through airports and using Wi-Fi have their metadata collected, that simply put is spying," Easter said.

A report by the commissioner from last June, Easter said, noted that some activities may have been directed at Canadians.

Mobile users click here to watch the livestream or click here to see the liveblog.

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