Evolving the RCMP’s counterterrorism responsibility
It is almost a cliché to observe that law enforcement has had to change how it does business to ensure the safety of our citizens and our allies in an ever-evolving threat environment.
We have learned valuable lessons from attacks in Bali, Madrid and London. However, as Canadian practitioners, our education started far earlier. I can still recall the brutal destruction of Air India Flight 182 over the Irish Sea on June 23, 1985. All 329 people on board – including 280 Canadian citizens – were killed. It was the single deadliest pre-9/11 incident of aviation terrorism. It remains the single largest mass murder in Canadian history.
Canada is the only one of five nations named as targets by al-Qaeda that has not yet been attacked. The attack will come. The only question is when.
A number of recent domestic and international cases have demonstrated that the extremist threat is not always an external one. There are native-born citizens – of Canada, the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and a host of other countries – who are influenced by the siren call of radicalism and violent extremism and who are prepared to engage in direct action.
Neither profound religious faith nor deeply held political convictions are alien to the Canadian tradition. Nor do they necessarily manifest themselves in violence or extremism. Nevertheless, it is important that as a community, we advance initiatives aimed at building understanding of the process of radicalization, its evolution and the different forms that it takes. We work closely with our domestic and international partners, with communities and with academia in this regard, so that together we can develop and improve strategies to identify, prevent and mitigate the threat posed by radicalization.
Although the Canadian police and security intelligence community has experienced profound change over the past three decades, some core elements have remained the same. The RCMP has – as it has had for 85 years of its 133-year history – the primary responsibility for the prevention and investigation of terrorism-related criminal offences.
Despite what some commentators might say, 9/11 did not put the RCMP “back in the spy game.” Nor did the RCMP “recreate the Security Service.” We are not in the spy game and, while the Anti-Terrorism Act did indeed codify terrorism-related offences, the RCMP never lost the responsibility for conducting national security criminal investigations.
As the RCMP’s Assistant Commissioner, National Security Criminal Investigations, I occupy a relatively new position. It was only last fall that as an organization, the RCMP decided it needed to split its criminal intelligence function from its national security criminal investigative function to give both organizational priorities the attention they deserve.
The RCMP is evolving to meet the changing threat environment in three fundamental areas: integration among the layers of law enforcement; law enforcement coordination with security intelligence; and, community outreach.
Integration amongst federal, provincial and local law enforcement through INSETs (Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams) is key to our response to terrorism. Working through the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Counter-Terrorism and National Security Committee, Canadian law enforcement has developed eight key principles to improve the framework under which law enforcement combats terrorism.
These principles focus on the distinct, yet complementary, roles of all the national security partners: integration as the foundation for all of our efforts in national security; the central role played by the national INSET program; and the need for proper information security and sharing protocols.
This is both long overdue and a constructive first step. Through this committee we will continue to expand the collaboration and flow of information between law enforcement, security intelligence agencies, and public/private partners. In increasing the flow of information between these partners, our goal remains constant: the continual improvement and development of what the British call a rich or fulsome picture of situational awareness.
Nevertheless, from my perspective, we are further away from that picture than we ought to be.
2. Intelligence cooperation
Parallel to strengthening integration across the wider security community, the RCMP and CSIS have entered a new age of cooperation. Though limited by the legal structures in which we operate, we have succeeded – especially during the last year – in revolutionizing the cooperation and coordination between our two organizations.
Today, we harmonize our strategic priorities, jointly examine files, and understand better than ever that we each play a vital – and necessarily different – role in the national security of Canada. This spirit of increased cooperation has grown out of the bruises of recent experience.
3. Community outreach
Lastly, I am very proud of another evolution we’ve made to meet the evolving landscape: the National Security Community Outreach Program.
As local police officers in thousands of communities nationwide, we’ve long understood the need for outreach – the need to engage with those we are policing. And our track record demonstrates this. Be it recent South Asian immigrants in British Columbia or remote First Nations populations in Canada’s north, in our traditional policing role we reach out across Canada’s mosaic to work with communities to better understand their unique perspectives and build the kinds of lasting relationships that help us do our job.
We realize that it is necessary to do the same with national security matters. We must count on the confidence and participation of all Canadian groups. It will be necessary to do more, but we are well on the way.
Elements of Canadian anti-terrorism legislation – namely “investigative hearings” and “recognizance with conditions” (often mis-named preventative arrest) – recently expired under sunset clauses. Although they were important tools for law enforcement, their expiration is part of the normal ebb and flow of statute and legislation in a strong democracy. I believe law enforcement maintains the powers necessary to ensure the safety and security of our communities.
In March 2006, we created the National Office of Investigative Standards and Practices within NSCI to ensure that we use these powers in a manner that is both effective and transparent. The government and the people of Canada expect nothing less.
From an RCMP perspective, one of the most critical events of the post-9/11 era has been Justice O’Connor’s inquiry into the actions of Canadian officials with respect to Maher Arar. Justice O’Connor’s reports were critical of a wide-range of Canadian departments and agencies, including the RCMP. He criticized our training, our information sharing practices, and our ability to oversee our investigations. At the same time, however, he reaffirmed our role in national security criminal investigations and the need to share information with domestic and foreign partners.
The RCMP has committed to implementing all of Justice O’Connor’s recommendations. This has meant a significant evolution in our organizational culture which, in the long run, will have a positive effect on the RCMP. At this point, we have implemented the major components of the recommendations, including the development of a new governance framework and revised policy for national security criminal investigations.
At the root of the reforms is recognition that, from the constable on patrol to the commissioner, we must exercise increase vigilance at all levels when it comes to national security. Our new governance framework – based upon the central control of investigations – will reinforce this new vigilance.
THE WAY AHEAD
Recently I received the results of the RCMP’s annual survey of its partners and stakeholders and the results were telling. Only 57% agreed that NSCI shares as much terrorism-related information and intelligence as possible. Message received. We are working to improve that flow, but we require the assistance of all to identify and implement solutions.
We know there is work to do. We will continue to expand and improve training of investigators and frontline officers. We will improve our situational awareness of investigations in a way that doesn’t burden investigators. And we will work with our counterterrorism and national security and intelligence partners to increase the flow of information to and from frontline officers through initiatives like the Urban Transit and Rail Security Initiative. Finally, we will engage our political leadership about the resource challenges we face.
Mike McDonell is Assistant Commissioner for the RCMP’s National Security Criminal Investigations. Over 28 years with the force, he has conducted counter-terrorist duties, peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia and criminal and national security criminal intelligence. Most recently, he served as director general of border integrity. This article is adapted from a presentation to the 6th International Public Safety & Counterterrorism Conference in Quebec City.