TORONTO – A Canadian journalist expressed dismay Tuesday after learning that the RCMP were planning to shadow him in hopes he would lead them to the person who leaked secret information on a suspected terrorist.
The proposed surveillance was part of an investigation into the leak of a sensitive spy agency document about Adil Charkaoui to Montreal’s La Presse newspaper.
“I’m in a bit of shock still,” La Presse reporter Joel-Denis Bellavance said from Ottawa. “We live in a democratic country. Freedom of the press is a guaranteed freedom.”
Information about the surveillance is in highly classified RCMP documents a Federal Court ordered disclosed as part of a lawsuit filed by Abfousian Abdelrazik, another man the government once branded a terrorist and who was also subject of a damaging leak.
The records show Canadian Security and Intelligence Service had concluded the Charkaoui document, passed to La Presse in 2007, came from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. But the agency could not identify the source despite using fingerprints and DNA analysis. At the time, Charkaoui was under a national security certificate as a suspected al-Qaida sleeper agent.
CSIS then called in the Mounties, who proposed questioning Immigration employees while tailing Bellavance in what was dubbed “Project Standard.”
“It is expected that the view questionnaire process will generate communication between the source and the journalist, which should provide a unique opportunity to capture the meet through surveillance, and to identify the source,” states an RCMP report in December 2008 marked “Top Secret.”
Surveillance of the reporter was to be limited to a “specific period of time.” The document also suggests that there was a “purpose and a motivation” to the leak that warranted investigation.
In their final report, dated April 7, 2011, RCMP said they had not been able to find the culprit “due to poor record management and lack of recall or co-operation from (Immigration) staff.”
It made no mention of Bellavance surveillance.
“The fact that they wanted to do it is still troublesome,” Bellavance said. “It still is mind-boggling.”
Federal Court ordered disclosure of the records because of the similarities to the Abdelrazik leak in August 2011, which the Mounties say they are still investigating. Abdelrazik’s lawyers will ask the court this month to force the RCMP to turn over their file, saying it’s crucial to his civil lawsuit over the leak.
“The RCMP’s investigation file is the only source of information directly relevant to issues at the heart of the present action, including who was responsible for the leak, what responsibilities and duties their position(s) entailed, and what safeguards were in place to prevent such a leak,” Abdelrazik’s motion states.
The Mounties, however, argue disclosure of their “Project Statue” file could jeopardize their probe into who gave the secret documents to at least two newspapers, a leak CSIS says damaged national security.
“Investigations of this nature are usually long and tedious. Due to the complexity of this case, it is impossible to estimate when this investigation will be concluded,” RCMP Insp. Randal Walsh says in an affidavit.
Abdelrazik, 53, a Sudanese-born Canadian, became widely known when Ottawa refused for six years to help him get back to Canada from Sudan, where he was imprisoned and, he says, tortured. Federal Court ruled in 2009 that Canadian anti-terrorism agents had played a role in his detention.
In early August 2011, La Presse ran a front-page story based on a pair of sensitive documents CSIS had prepared for Transport Canada in 2004. They disclosed Abdelrazik had apparently been in on a conversation with the Moroccan-born Charkaoui about hijacking and blowing up an Air France plane from Montreal to Paris.
The documents surfaced as the UN was considering whether to take Abdelrazik off its terrorist list.
Within days of the La Presse story, CSIS began an internal probe into whether its agents had leaked the documents, records show. The agency tentatively concluded blame fell on someone in the Privy Council Office, the bureaucracy that supports the prime minister and cabinet. RCMP began their investigation in mid-August 2011.
Abdelrazik’s unproven suit claims the federal government deliberately leaked unsubstantiated allegations to try to convince the public that he was indeed a terrorist. He also asserts a pattern of government behaviour aimed at smearing terrorism suspects. Ottawa denies the allegations. Among other things, it maintains any damaging information about him was already public.
In an interview Tuesday, Abdelrazik’s lawyer Paul Champ said the leak appears to have been planned, possibly at the highest levels of government, and the RCMP file is important to the lawsuit.
“Mr. Abdelrazik was the victim of crime,” Champ said in an interview. “They’re actually using this investigation as an excuse to block his civil suit.”
Federal Court is slated to hear Abdelrazik’s disclosure motion Nov. 19.