Civil libertarians want more detail on how police investigated the Canada Day bomb plot to see if officers came too close to entrapping the accused Surrey couple.
John Stewart Nuttall and Amanda Marie Korody were arrested July 1 on terrorism-related charges after the planting of disabled pressure cooker bombs outside the legislature in Victoria.
Doubts have grown about their ability to carry out an act of terrorism as more details spilled out about their impoverished life inside a north Surrey basement suite, where they lived on social assistance without a vehicle and got methadone treatment for drug addiction.
Police say they became “self-radicalized” to support the Al-Qaeda ideology and posed a serious threat to kill or maim people.
RCMP officers announcing the arrests said a “variety of complex investigative and covert techniques” were used to monitor and control the pair to prevent public harm.
Micheal Vonn, policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the concern is that undercover officers may have interacted with the suspects to essentially advance the plot and provide assistance.
Much depends on the police assessment of the level of risk the two suspects posed to public safety in the early stages of the five-month investigation.
Vonn said an apparently urgent, genuine public danger would “arguably justify” undercover officers becoming part of the plot to derail it.
But she said the calculation should be very different if police judged they were monitoring two suspects who – regardless of what they may have been saying – wouldn’t or couldn’t make and plant bombs unaided.
“If we did have a case where police actively facilitated the planting of what were supposed to be explosive devices, then we are going to have to ask ourselves questions about fundamental fairness, the appropriateness of this and whether our legal system has a place for this,” Vonn said.
“Because then you’re creating a crime that otherwise would not exist.”
Vonn sees parallels to the ‘Mr. Big’ investigations where officers pose as a crime boss and his henchmen and goad a suspect to say or do incriminating things in order to become part of the organization.
Canadians should be vigilant about how authorities pursue terror cases, she said, adding there have been a raft of U.S. cases where agents have been deeply involved with suspects, who are unlikely to have done anything criminal on their own.
And she said British agents probing environmental groups in the U.K. have gone as far as to have relationships with suspects and father children with them as part of years-long covert surveillance operations.
Rob Gordon, director of SFU’s school of criminology, said police would have had to weigh the risk to public safety and security against their aim of allowing the Surrey suspects to generate enough evidence to get a conviction.
“Here, I think they got the balance right,” Gordon said.
Police claim to have had tight control over the bombs to ensure they were harmless.
Gordon said police could have used a different strategy – such as rushing in much sooner to disrupt the plotters before any bomb was built – but the Surrey duo likely wouldn’t have been convicted and any other co-consipirators might have dispersed and become harder to stop from hatching a new plot.
He cautioned not enough is yet public to draw conclusions as to whether officers’ actions came anywhere near entrapment.
“When you look at the two individuals involved you can’t help but be under-impressed and that makes me wonder about whether they really knew what they were doing.”
But Gordon said he’d be surprised if police actively encouraged or assisted the suspects.
He also noted the operations would likely have been guided in part by a federal Crown prosecutor, to ensure there were no critical gaps in the evidence being gathered.
Both Vonn and Gordon were critical of how the Surrey landlord let media into the couple’s suite – a clear privacy violation that may also have court ramifications.
“I think that could backfire,” Gordon said. “Defence could use it to argue that it creates bias in the minds of a jury.”
RCMP Sgt. Peter Thiessen declined to comment further on the investigation tactics used in the Nuttall-Korody case.
“The details of the police investigation are going to become clear in the impending court case,” Thiessen said.