Trapped in Parliament with a Gunman

Thoughts on fearing for your life, and still not wanting to be spied on.

It was when I saw the Minister of Defence being led downstairs by an armed guard that it properly dawned on me that things would change.

I was staring at Minister Rob Nicholson through the glass doors of the fifth-floor Parliamentary cafeteria. The same doors I'd been peering through all day, just waiting to see a keffiyeh-clad terrorist, bolting down the hallway with a rifle, coming to round up and behead any apostate Westerners—like myself, or the Conservative staffer praying aloud next to me.

Luckily, in the aftermath, things have not entirely gone to hell. The sleepiness through which we're planning on gifting expansive new powers to our uber-secret spy agencies, however, should made some of you uncomfortable.

I've repeated the events of October 23 so many times now, that it feels like an urban legend. The 12 hours we spent in lockdown was palm-sweating nervousness, interspersed with moments of pure terror, as we heard banging from the floors below—what we now know was the sounds of SWAT teams breaking down decades-old oak doors—or as new reports would hit Twitter that as many as five active gunmen still skulked through the capital.

It feels rather foolish, in hindsight. The shooter, we know now, was dead. By the time the Minister was being led down the stairs, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau had been dead for some eight hours.

Security, however, were convinced that more active shooters roamed the halls. One frantic security guard, gun drawn, had come into the cafeteria to tell us as much. We locked the doors and hid behind a low wall in the back of the room. Unarmed security guards grabbed kitchen knives and gritted their teeth.

It didn't take long for reports to speculate that the country would be changed forever. Canada has lost its innocence. Ottawa would never be the same.

That was some ass-talking bullshit.

Unarmed security guards grabbed kitchen knives and gritted their teeth

The country, its teeth set on edge, is no different than it was before. Even the government, despite insisting that the Conservatives are plunging us towards a police state, is no more steely in its resolve to recalibrate the balance between civil liberties and security than it was the day before the attacks broke out.

The Conservative Government is not a recent convert to amping-up Canada's spying powers. For some time, Canada has leveraged the position of CSIS—that agency that's supposed to only be spying on Canadians at home, like animal rights activists, First Nations and neo-nazis—to go after anyone in the world, so long as they get a top-secret warrant, as I reported in Motherboard this week.

While, yes, it does require a warrant, it is important to know that the courts have already slammed CSIS for misleading them in obtaining warrants, telling judges in top-secret hearings that they plan to run surveillance in Canada, only to obtain the warrant and go to the NSA to do bulk surveillance abroad.

The courts review applications; they do not necessarily monitor how the warrants are carried out. What that means, in no uncertain terms, is that CSIS will now become a bridge agency where previously gray-area activities like the bulk data collection run by CSEC, and its American partners in the NSA, will become legal and sanctioned by Canadian courts. It is a backdoor to allow CSEC to collect Canadians' data.

Weirdly, those thoughts passed through my head as I stayed low in my plush cafeteria booth, wondering to myself whether I was the kind of person who would jump an armed attacker, or whether I would be the first one running through the fire escape.

But fear is a motivator. Normally, I'm a put-your-tinfoil-hat-on-and-live-in-the-woods kind of guy, given that I've spent much of the past year writing about privacy or, more accurately, our government's attempts to curtail it in the name of law enforcement. Sitting in that booth, wondering if the next person I'd see was a good-guy-with-a-gun or a bad-guy-with-a-gun, I felt that twang of conversion that must come for atheists in foxholes.

To that end, the warnings that this government will take us down a slippery slope to hell are misleading. This government is simply as afraid as the rest of us. Handing the reins of government to the people would likely get us even stricter restrictions on our liberties than the Harper Government is looking to slap on us.

Speaking in front of a packed house in Ottawa, just days after the attacks, Edward Snowden-enabling journalist Glenn Greenwald warned that giving blank cheques to spooks is always problematic.

In a talk otherwise plagued by oversimplified platitudes about militarism and state-based aggression that sounded plagiarized from a first year political science student's Noam-Chomsky-and-wine-fuelled essay, Greenwald made a really salient point—much of the powers afforded to spy agencies like the NSA are not government-directed.

Indeed, the top-secret agencies that exist in the grayest of crevices between legal and illegal are the least likely to keep their governments abreast of their actions, or to seek judicial oversight unless they absolutely have to.

Peter MacKay, the Justice Minister, yesterday looked me dead in the eye when I asked him how he can be confident that this domestic and international surveillance can be legal.

"Well, it has to be," he said.

But the fact is, he may well never know. I once requested all the documents from within CSEC pertaining to legal advice of their airport monitoring scheme. I got back one page, an email, and it was totally redacted.

So there's a tension here: the interplay between our fingernail-chewing fear of being shot in the face, and our need to not torch centuries worth of earned civil liberties in the sake of expedient comfort.

Believe it or not, the Harper Government is trying to work with that balance. Their updates to CSIS' powers are not inherently a bad thing.

Right now, four people review Canada's entire security regime

What is bad, however, is the utter and absolute lack of effective oversight for those powers. Right now, four people review our entire security regime.

There's the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) which comprises Deborah Gray, former deputy leader of the erstwhile right-wing Reform Party; Gene McLean, a security expert; and Yves Fortier, a well-respected lawyer. Two of the seats are vacant.

Recent SIRC face-palm-worthy missteps include having to accept the resignation of Arthur Porter, who had to resign amid a slew of corruption accusations that involve a shady lobbyist-cum-arms-dealer. His successor as chair of the committee resigned after it was revealed that he was actively lobbying for oil company Enbridge—opponents of whom are regularly surveilled by CSIS.

That committee, ostensibly, oversees CSIS, yet has been near-universally derided as little more than a feel-good review process that contains no real powers of investigation, and is expressly forbidden from publishing anything even remotely detailed about CSIS' expansive operations.

CSEC, meanwhile, has a commissioner—Jean-Pierre Plouffe. He actually has some power to investigate and force the intelligence-collecting service to adhere to its mandate. He at least has the power to chastise the agency, albeit without the ability to say much publicly. That's because the agency has the power to vet and censor his reports before they're made public, if they're ever made public.

There's an obvious solution: let Members of Parliament oversee Canadian intelligence-gathering and spying.

It's an obvious solution for a clear problem—one that's been the norm in America since time immemorial—yet the Conservatives have refused exactly that proposal when it was introduced by two Senators, including one of their own, and they're set to refuse it again now that a Liberal MP is suggesting it.

I'm well aware of the fear that inspires you to want to grab a kitchen knife and stab anyone who comes through the fire escape. I'm fully up to date on the feeling of terror from being told that a full-scale assault has begun on your place of work. I'm entirely familiar with the unease of walking into a building every day that has become the focal point of an international terror campaign.

So I've no particular problem with empowering the agencies who want to combat that, but not without quid-pro-quo.

You don't give the keys to the inmates, and you don't give free rein to the spies.