OTTAWA (Reuters) - Allegations that Canadian security officials spied on a Brazilian government ministry give Canada "a black eye in the world," a top opposition leader said on Wednesday, putting more pressure on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to explain the affair.
Thomas Mulcair of the official opposition New Democrats branded as "unacceptable" the allegations in a Brazilian media report saying the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) had targeted the Brazilian mines and energy ministry.
CSEC is the Canadian equivalent of the top-secret U.S. National Security Agency. Harper, whose Conservatives are trailing in the polls, said on Tuesday in Indonesia that he was very concerned by the report.
"Actively spying on ministries and companies in other countries to give an advantage to Canadian companies is not only illegal, it's irresponsible, and it gives Canada a black eye in the world," Mulcair told a news conference.
"The Conservatives have simply shown that they have no ethical boundaries of any kind ... this a huge mistake," he added, saying there was clear evidence CSEC had been complicit in industrial espionage.
CSEC chief John Forster declined to comment on Wednesday when pressed repeatedly by reporters as to whether the agency had spied in Brazil. He told a conference in Ottawa that everything CSEC did was legal and closely scrutinized by a separate, government-appointed commissioner.
The allegations have soured ties with Brazil, a big trading partner for Canada. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Monday demanded Canada explain what had happened.
The Globo report alleged CSEC used software to map the Brazilian ministry's communications. It provided no details of the alleged spying other than a slide presented at an intelligence conference that mentioned the ministry.
Defense Minister Rob Nicholson, in overall charge of CSEC, says he cannot talk about national security matters.
The allegations have raised concerns that Canada could be gathering information abroad that would benefit its mining and energy companies. The Conservative government has been a vocal advocate for the country's resource sector.
Citing government documents obtained under access to information legislation, Britain's Guardian newspaper said CSEC and other intelligence officials had met twice a year since 2005 with scores of Canadian energy companies.(link.reuters.com/pyb73v0)
Reuters has not seen all the documents, but did obtain from the government a redacted agenda for a "classified briefing for energy and utilities sector stakeholders" on May 23, 2013. The agenda stated the purpose was "to discuss national security and criminal risks to critical energy infrastructure".
Among those briefing were the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) spy agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the government's Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre. Topics included cyber threats and a case study on copper theft; two other topics were blanked out.
Canada's Public Safety ministry confirmed such meetings had been held regularly since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States but declined to comment on what had been on the agenda.
"It is standard practice for security agencies to discuss issues with Canadian industry in order to protect lives and sensitive infrastructure from terrorism and other threats," said ministry spokesman Jean Paul Duval.
One official document quoted former natural resources minister Gary Lunn as saying in 2007 that Ottawa had helped more than 200 industry representatives gain security clearance so they could be given sensitive data to help boost security.
Lunn told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp that the information handed over to commercial firms "was not to do with competitive advantage at all."
CSIS declined to comment on the meetings. Canadian energy and pipeline company Enbridge Inc said on Wednesday it had paid for some of the catering at the event.
"Enbridge representatives were unable to attend that May 2013 meeting. However, the purpose of the briefings is to provide a timely and relevant summary of current security issues that may have an impact on Canada's critical infrastructure," Enbridge spokesman Graham White said.
He said the goal of the sessions was to make sure the industry is aware of potential security threats.