Breaking: New Snowden Document Shows Something But We Don’t Know Exactly What

The headline above is the one that I think probably best captures the content of the NSA document at the heart of the recent Toronto G20/G8 spying story.  This appears to be the first in the additional trove of documents that Glen Greenwald acquired from Snowden that pertain to Canada.  Mr. Greenwald is working with the CBC on this story, and appears as a co-author on the web version of the story and a commentator in the broadcast version.

(In the interest of full disclosure: I was also asked to comment, providing a description of the legal rules at issue and asked to opine on the questions of illegality if certain facts proved true.  More on that below.)

So to say there was signals intelligence work in support of the G8/G20 is like declaiming “dog bites man!”

Truth be told, a lot of facts remain to be established.  The document is some sort of briefing note describing NSA preparation for the G8/G20 summit and its contribution to a broader US intelligence/security operation, centred in the US embassy.  As best I recall after a quick read, the security concerns raised in the document relate to the prospect of anti-globalization unrest.  But there is also language about supporting US policy goals at the summit.

The NSA contribution would be “virtual” — the document suggests no physical presence at the operation command centre at the US embassy.

In a passage that is the ultimate source of many of the concerns raised in the CBC story, the document says that the NSA activities (whatever they were) would be “closely co-ordinated with the Canadian partner”.  I don’t recall the partner being identified per se, but a reasonable inference is that the NSA’s “Canadian partner” is Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC).

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What all this means isn’t clear. I think it is pretty apparent that there was NSA communication intercept activity related to the G8/G20. Signals intelligence (SIGINT), after all, is what the NSA does.  And it would be astonishing if the NSA stood-down on providing SIGINT because, say, a major international meeting was taking place in neighbouring, friendly, ally Canada.  This is especially true given that participants at that summit included representatives of states that vary in terms of their level of friendliness.  So to say there was signals intelligence work in support of the G8/G20 is like declaiming “dog bites man!”  (I have commented before about the banality of spying and summitry.)

The more interesting issue is “what sort of signals intelligence work” and “what was Canada’s role”.

On this, there is a range of possibilities.  For sake of brevity, let me propose three.  The first I would consider probable and banal.  The second I would consider both improbable and troubling.  The third I would consider a plausible compromise possibility….

Read the rest of this article on Craig Forcese’s National Security Law blog

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