Canada gives spy agency new anti-terror powers

Ottawa (AFP) - Canada's spy agency will be granted new powers in legislation unveiled Friday to thwart terror plots in a national security overhaul precipitated by twin jihadist attacks three months ago.

The October 20 and 22 attacks in Quebec province and in the capital Ottawa, targeting soldiers and Parliament, revealed gaps in Canadian defenses against terrorism.

In the aftermath of the terror attacks -- the first ever on Canadian soil -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to beef up security.

On Friday, he said new measures are needed to combat "a great evil (that) has been descending on our world, an evil which has been growing more and more powerful: violent jihadism."

It is "one of most dangerous enemies our world has ever faced," he said.

Citing recent attacks in Australia, Canada and France, he added that terror assaults and plots "have become more frequent and more dangerous" and the need to confront them has become urgent.

He said "jihadists have declared war on Canada and... are encouraging others to join their campaign of terror against Canadians."

"It would be a grave mistake to ignore their threat."

The new legislation mandates Canada's spy service, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), with disrupting national security threats domestically and abroad, for the first time and in the most sweeping security changes since new anti-terror measures were unveiled immediately following the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the neighboring United States.

Although the lengths to which Canadian spies can go in their new duties will be dramatically expanded, any activities that infringe on Canadians' constitutional rights will require ministerial approval and judicial authorization.

These efforts may include interfering with financial transactions or a suspect's travel plans such as preventing him or her from boarding a plane, intercepting weapons and conducting "online counter-messaging," for example, hacking a Twitter account used to recruit jihadists.

The new measures, notably so-called "threat disruption powers," are in line with British and Australian anti-terror laws.

They explicitly do not include assassination or causing bodily harm to individuals.

Until now, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has been responsible for investigating and acting on terror threats.

CSIS was created in the early 1980s after an inquiry into RCMP illegal activities and rights abuses recommended a separation of policing and intelligence gathering.

Until now, CSIS has handed-off cases to the RCMP to investigate and make arrests.

The government argued that Canada must act more quickly to thwart threats to national security.

"CSIS is uniquely positioned to know about threats early on... and act early," a senior official told a media briefing.

Early critics, including opposition leader Tom Mulcair, expressed concern about oversight and abuses.

Harper countered: "I think what Canadians understand is that their freedom and their security more often than not go hand in hand."

"We do not buy the argument that every time you protect Canadians, you somehow take away their liberties. It is the jihadists who would take away our freedoms."

The bill criminalizes the advocacy or promotion of terrorism, and allows for the taking down of websites containing such materials.

It also lowers the threshold for detaining suspects in terror cases, and allows them to be held without charges for longer.

The changes will also allow intergovernmental sharing of information on alleged threats and suspects. This was previously illegal under Canada's privacy laws.