Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Chilling Scenario, Due Process Required Nonetheless

These are serious allegations: a plot to kidnap parliamentarians with the intent of compelling the government of Canada into pulling its troops out of Afghanistan; to behead the Canadian Prime Minister; to blow up public buildings, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Broadcast Center in Toronto, across the street from where the regional headquarters of Canada's spy agency are located. All of these, we are told, were among the activities planned by the 17 individuals who were arrested in last weekend's antiterrorist swoop in Southern Ontario (see "London Averted?" June 4, 2006).

But that's about all we're going to get. Or the seventeen suspects, for that matter, who reportedly are barred from meeting privately with their lawyers. The problem with these allegations, which come from a Crown synopsis, is that it is impossible to verify them. Already, defense lawyers have noted the dearth of details concerning the accusations against their clients.

As always, the reasons given as to why the government cannot provide more information—or due process for the accused, in fact—will be the same: sources need to be protected, and that revealing more could jeopardize their security. Moreover, some of the information that led to last weekend's arrests likely came from foreign agencies, which Canadian authorities are to refrain from revealing. Finally, the authorities will almost certainly argue that this is an ongoing investigation and that to reveal more now could complicate their efforts.

All possibly true. But there are two principal dangers in this game of secrecy: first, case-building against groups and individuals is mostly an exercise in interpreting innuendo and piecing together a jigsaw puzzle based on imperfect, incomplete, and sometimes downright wrong information. In other words, rarely will an intelligence officer work with a clear-cut piece of information. Furthermore, individual and institutional biases inevitably arise, leading analysts to operate with the conclusion as a point of departure. This, in turn, engenders syllogism, which intelligence agencies commit on a daily basis: X is a contact of target Y, therefore X must be involved too, as is Z, who knows X. The end state—guilt—is assumed for all three characters, and whatever piece of information is obtained on any of the three will be tainted by this assumption. One consequence of this is that almost all intelligence material can be shaped to fit the model, so to speak.

As a result of the above, there exists a very real risk that some of the 17 individuals who were nabbed over the weekend are now appearing in court as a result of guilt-by-association, shoddy intelligence work, syllogism, or institutional biases. Not necessarily, mind you, but a definitive possibility. That this would happen is unfortunate but pardonable. As I have already stated, intelligence work is an imperfect art, and errors of commission cannot be altogether avoided. Even the best, most experienced analysts make mistakes. They are, after all, human. I would also add that when security is concerned, casting a wide net is probably a wise course of action.

Where we run the risk of encountering fundamental ethical problems, however, is when the authorities' obsession with secrecy obviates the means by which those individuals could clear their name—in other words, due process. Absent such recourse, innocent people will be prosecuted. In certain cases, this also provides a convenient and quite nefarious way to cut corners and cover investigative shortcomings. Put differently, individuals could be put behind bars based on a less than airtight case.

The second danger lies in the court of public opinion. If the authorities fail to prove their case by demonstrating their ability to provide a fair and open trial, doubts will linger as to how real a threat Canada was facing. Failure to do so will only invite speculation and provide ammunition to those who allege that this weekend's events are cynically being used to facilitate the upcoming review of the Security Certificates or simply to win kudos from Washington, which the Harper government seems keen on courting.

The threat of terrorism is certainly not inexistent, even in Canada. Nevertheless, when confronted by it, governments need to show, as clearly as possible, that their actions are just and consistent with the system of laws. Without such measures, a consequence of the attack that never took place will be a loss of confidence in the very institutions that are charged with protecting the public.

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