OTTAWA — The head of Canada's spy agency says terror suspects are too often portrayed as romantic revolutionaries.
Richard Fadden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, chastised the country's civil-rights advocates and media Thursday, accusing them of presenting a distorted picture of the threat alleged extremists pose.
"Our elites tend to avert their eyes, and media tend to give what little coverage they grant on this subject to groups that seem to feel that our charm and the maple leafs on our backpacks are all that we need to protect us," he told a gathering of academics and security officials.
"Many of our opinion leaders have come to see the fight against terrorism not as defending democracy and our values but as attacking them. Almost any attempt to fight terrorism by the government is portrayed as an over-reaction or as an assault on liberty."
In his first public speech as CSIS chief, Fadden called for a nuanced debate worthy of a G8 country, saying Canada is not immune from extremism.
"Terrorism is the ultimate attack on liberties. If terrorists believe in anything, it is nihilism and death, and they are truly equal-opportunity oppressors," he told the annual meeting of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies.
"So why then, I ask, are those accused of terrorist offences often portrayed in media as quasi-folk heroes despite the harsh statements of numerous judges. 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?
"A more balanced presentation is what I'm hoping for."
He said Canada has a serious blind spot when it comes to genuine discussion of terrorism. As a result, young people charged with plotting violence are considered too ill-prepared or unsophisticated to carry out such deadly acts.
"I seriously doubt, however, whether editors would allow this kind of reasoning to be used in news coverage of those accused of murder or robbery."
Fadden said a "loose partnership" of single-issue, non-governmental organizations, advocacy journalists and lawyers has succeeded to some extent in "forging a positive public image for anyone accused of terrorist links or charges."
Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International's Canadian chapter, responded that human rights organizations fully understand the critical importance of government acting to protect citizens from terrorism and other horrifying human rights abuses.
"We regularly criticize governments when they fail to do so and leave people without protection. But we insist that governments do so in full compliance with the crucial human rights obligations that they themselves have developed and agreed to over the decades," Neve said in an email message.
"Defending the human rights of individuals accused of terrorism is not about standing up for terrorism or romanticizing terrorism. It is about standing up for human rights, plain and simple."
Fadden, a longtime bureaucrat, took over as CSIS director in late June, inheriting several thorny problems.
A key issue is the agency's dealings with countries that do not always respect human rights, and whether the spy service's relationship with them puts jailed Canadians and others at risk of abuse.
Three Canadians tortured in overseas prisons are suing the government over the role security agencies played in passing information to foreign police and intelligence officials.
In addition, the spy service's role in the case of Montrealer Abousfian Abdelrazik, who was stranded for years in Sudan, is being scrutinized by the agency's watchdog.
CSIS's cases against two terror suspects held on security certificates faltered when it failed to disclose important evidence.
A third case, against Adil Charkaoui of Montreal, collapsed because CSIS pulled material it did not want to become public.
Fadden defended that move Thursday, saying the sensitive material amounted to a "roadmap to our tradecraft and sources" for would-be terrorists.
"We chose the path that would cause the least long-term damage to Canada and withdrew the information."
After speaking, Fadden refused to take questions from reporters, saying he didn't want to turn the proceedings into a media event.
Kerry Pither, an author and human rights advocate, said Thursday that Fadden's remarks indicate CSIS is taking no responsibility for its recent mistakes. "Instead he's blaming everyone else."
In his speech, Fadden endorsed a federal move to make it easier for security agencies to intercept phone calls and emails.
Fadden said terrorists should not have a "virtual safe haven" that spans the globe.
"We need the tools to separate those who tweet from those who terrorize."
The proposed federal legislation would require telecommunications service providers to include intercept capabilities in their networks. It would also allow authorities to obtain information about subscribers and their mobile devices without a warrant.
Opponents have raised concerns about the scope of information involved and how it would be used.
In July, the CSIS watchdog said the intelligence service may need major changes after finding it ignored concerns about human rights and Omar Khadr's young age in deciding to interview the Toronto-born teen at a U.S. military prison.
The Security Intelligence Review Committee called for "guidance and advice" from Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan to help the spy service meet legal and public demands in the post-9-11 world.