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Does Canada, Really, Need A Foreign Intelligence Service?

A group of former senior Canadian government officials who have been heavily involved in the intelligence community recently penned an op-ed that raised the question of “does Canada need a foreign intelligence service?” It’s a curious piece, insofar as it argues that Canada does need such a service while simultaneously discounting some of the past debates about whether this kind of a service should be established, as well as giving short shrift to Canada’s existing collection capacities that are little spoken about. They also fundamentally fail to take up what is probably the most serious issue currently plaguing Canada’s intelligence community, which is the inability to identify, hire, and retain qualified staff in existing agencies that have intelligence collection and analysis responsibilities.

The Argument

The authors’ argument proceeds in a few pieces. First, it argues that Canadian decision makers don’t really possess an intelligence mindset insofar as they’re not primed to want or feel the need to use foreign intelligence collected from human sources. Second, they argue that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) really does already possess a limited foreign intelligence mandate (and, thus, that the Government of Canada would only be enhancing pre-existing powers instead of create new powers from nothing). Third, and the meat of the article, they suggest that Canada probably does want an agency that collects foreign intelligence using human sources to support other members of the intelligence community (e.g., the Communications Security Establishment) and likely that such powers could just be injected into CSIS itself. The article concludes with the position that Canada’s allies “have quietly grumbled from time to time that Canada is not pulling its weight” and that we can’t prioritize our own collection needs when we’re being given intelligence from our close allies per agreements we’ve established with them. This last part of the argument has a nationalistic bent to it: implicitly they’re asking whether we can really trust even our allies and closest friends? Don’t we need to create a capacity and determine where such an agency and its tasking should focus on, perhaps starting small but with the intent of it getting larger?

Past Debates and Existing Authorities

The argument as positioned fails to clearly make the case for why these expanded authorities are required and simultaneously does not account for the existing powers associated with the CSE, the Canadian military, and Global Affairs Canada.

With regards to the former, the authors state, “the arguments for and against the establishment of a new agency have never really been examined; they have only been cursorily debated from time to time within the government by different agencies, usually arguing on the basis of their own interests.” In making this argument they depend on people not remembering their history. The creation of CSIS saw a significant debate about whether to include foreign human intelligence elements and the decision by Parliamentarians–not just the executive–was to not include these elements. The question of whether to enable CSIS or another agency to collect foreign human intelligence cropped up, again, in the late 1990s and early 2000, and again around 2006-2008 or so when the Harper government proposed setting up this kind of an agency and then declined to do so. To some extent, the authors’ op-ed is keeping with the tradition of this question arising every decade or so before being quietly set to the side.

In terms of agencies’ existing authorities and capacities, the CSE is responsible for conducting signals intelligence for the Canadian government and is tasked to focus on particular kinds of information per priorities that are established by the government. Per its authorizing legislation, the CSE can also undertake certain kinds of covert operations, the details of which have been kept firmly under wraps. The Canadian military has been aggressively building up its intelligence capacities with few details leaking out, and its ability to undertake foreign intelligence using human sources as unclear as the breadth of its mandate more generally.1 Finally, GAC has long collected information abroad. While their activities are divergent from the CIA or MI6–officials at GAC aren’t planning assassinations, as an example–they do collect foreign intelligence and share it back with the rest of the Government of Canada. Further, in their increasingly distant past they stepped in for the CIA in environments the Agency was prevented from operating within, such as in Cuba.

All of this is to say that Canada periodically goes through these debates of whether it should stand up a foreign intelligence service akin to the CIA or MI6. But the benefits of such a service are often unclear, the costs prohibitive, and the actual debates about what Canada already does left by the wayside. Before anyone seriously thinks about establishing a new service, they’d be well advised to read through Carvin’s, Juneau’s, and Forcese’s book Top Secret Canada. After doing so, readers will appreciate that staffing is already a core problem facing the Canadian intelligence community and recognize that creating yet another agency will only worsen this problem. Indeed, before focusing on creating new agencies the authors of the Globe and Mail op-ed might turn their minds to how to overcome the existing staffing problems. Solving that problem might enable agencies to best use their existing authorizing legislation and mandates to get much of the human foreign intelligence that the authors are so concerned about collecting. Maybe that op-ed could be titled, “Does Canada’s Intelligence Community Really Have a Staffing Problem?”


  1. As an example of the questionable breadth of the Canadian military’s intelligence function, when the military was tasked with assisting long-term care home during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in Canada, they undertook surveillance of domestic activism organizations for unclear reasons and subsequently shared the end-products with the Ontario government. ↩︎