Category Archives: International Security

Spies Without Borders: International Law and Intelligence Collection

To the surprise of many, it turns out that Canada’s chief security intelligence agency – the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) –may not legally collect covert intelligence abroad. That is at least one interpretation of a Canadian Federal Court decision issued in October 2007, but only released publicly in 2008. At issue was whether the court had the jurisdiction to issue a warrant under the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act (CSIS Act) in investigations concerning Canadians taking place overseas. CSIS had sought the warrant because the targets of the investigations, as Canadians, potentially enjoyed privacy rights under Canada’s constitutional bill of rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Faced with this conundrum, there were two plausible courses of action open to the court. First, it could have concluded that the CSIS Act’s warrant provisions extended only as far as authorizing searches and seizures in Canada. While this approach would have left open the question whether constitutional rules applied to CSIS’s extraterritorial conduct, it would have allowed the court to avoid the incongruity of a Canadian court “legally” authorizing an invasion of privacy taking place in a foreign jurisdiction whose own laws would probably be violated by the action.

Second, the court could have reached even further and concluded that CSIS itself has no statutory authorization to conduct extraterritorial investigations, pursuant to its core, statutory mission to collect intelligence relating to threats to the security of Canada. This approach would avoid the constitutional question entirely, but with the consequence of greatly limiting the scope of CSIS’s basic jurisdictional competence.

The Case of Colonel Abel

In June 2010, journalists for the Associated Press reported the arrest often Russian spies, all suspected of being “deep-cover” illegal agents in the United States. Seeking to convey the magnitude of this event, the journalists wrote that this “blockbuster series of arrests” might even be as significant as the FBI’s “famous capture of Soviet Col. Rudolf Abel in 1957 in New York.” The reference may have been lost on many Americans, but Colonel Abel’s story of American justice at a time of acute anxiety about the nation’s security is one that continues to resonate today. The honor, and error, that are contained in Colonel Abel’s story offer lessons worth remembering as the United States struggles against a new enemy: international terrorists. One important lesson is that ad hoc departures from the requirements of constitutional criminal procedure, even in the pursuit of seemingly exigent and unique national security threats, tend to cause more trouble than they are worth. Another is that these lessons have been repeatedly learned and, it would seem, repeatedly forgotten. We should be in the process of relearning these lessons today. In that spirit, after briefly summarizing Colonel Abel’s case and some of the themes it shares with contemporary cases, this article presents selected aspects of Colonel Abel’s arrest, trial, and appeal.

Early in the morning of June 21, 1957, almost exactly fifty-three years before the June 2010 arrests, Special Agents Edward Gamber and Paul Blasco of the FBI pushed their way into Room 839 at the Hotel Latham in Manhattan. The FBI agents sat a sleepy and half-naked Abel on his bed, identified themselves as charged with investigating matters of internal security, and questioned him for twenty minutes, insinuating knowledge of his espionage activities by addressing him as “Colonel.” The FBI agents told Abel that “if he did not ‘cooperate,’ he would be arrested before he left the room.” When Abel refused, the FBI signaled to agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (the INS, then under the authority of the Department of Justice), who were waiting outside. Under the close observation of the FBI agents, the INS agents arrested Abel, searched him and the contents of his room, and seized several items as evidence of Abel’s alienage.

The Choice of Law Against Terrorism

The assessment of facts to determine if peacetime law or the law of armed conflict is the correct choice involves the same analysis used in resolving other choice of law questions. Lawyers and judges constantly make choice of law decisions. Choice of law is part of the consideration of every legal matter. … In the terrorism-related cases discussed [here], international law … determines the choice of law. In these cases, choice of international law sends us, generally, to the domestic criminal law of the United States, Pakistan, Yemen, and other states. It does not send us to the law of armed conflict.