OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s new spy chief accused journalists and human rights advocates on Thursday of often glorifying terror suspects as “quasi folk heroes” and downplaying the risks posed to society by terrorism.
Richard Fadden, making his first speech as head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), said Canada had a “serious blind spot” when it came to battling terrorism.
“Many of our opinion leaders have come to see the fight against terrorism not as defending democracy and our values, but as attacking them,” he told a meeting of security experts.
A “loose partnership of single-issues NGOs, advocacy journalists and lawyers” had to a certain extent succeeded “in forging a positive public image for anyone accused of terrorist links or charges”, he added.
Fadden, 58, is a senior bureaucrat who served as a security and intelligence adviser to the government from 2000 to 2002.
CSIS and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been involved in a string of high-profile anti-terror cases in recent years, in some instances coming under strong criticism.
In the most infamous case, an inquiry found the RCMP falsely told their U.S. counterparts that software engineer Maher Arar had extremist links. The United States deported him to Syria in 2002, where he says he was tortured.
Ottawa apologized formally to Arar in 2007 and gave him a C$10.5 million ($9.8 million) settlement.
Media coverage of the case was often harsh, portraying the Mounties as incompetent.
Kerry Pither, a human rights advocate who campaigned for Arar, said Fadden’s attack was “inappropriate and outrageous”.
She told Reuters that two official inquiries into Canadians abused abroad had shown that CSIS made “careless, inaccurate and unjustified allegations of links to terrorism”.
Fadden was particularly irked by what he said was the overly sympathetic coverage of the so-called Toronto 18, a group of mainly young men who were accused of plotting al Qaeda-inspired attacks on Canadian landmarks.
He said terrorism was a serious crime.
“Why then, I ask, are those accused of terrorist offenses often portrayed in media as quasi folk heroes? ... Why are they always photographed with their children giving tender-hearted profiles and more or less taken at their word when they accuse CSIS or other government agencies of abusing them?” he said.
A man described by prosecutors as the Toronto 18 leader pleaded guilty last month to bomb charges, the fifth member of the group to have admitted guilt or to have been found guilty.
“I have to ask bluntly -- can those who downplay the seriousness of terrorism claim to be protecting our civil liberties?” said Fadden.
In 2008, an inquiry found Canadian security services probably contributed indirectly to the torture in Syria of three Arab Canadians suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. The trio said the questions they were asked in jail could only have come from CSIS and other law enforcement authorities.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson