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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. ↩︎
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Dissecting CSIS’ Statement Concerning Indefinite Metadata Retention

The Canada Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) released a public statement after the Federal Court found the Service to be breaking the law by permanently retaining metadata they had been collecting. To date, the Public Safety Minister has refused to clarify the numbers of Canadians who have been caught up in this ‘catch once, catch forever’ surveillance regime.

The Service’s statement is incredibly misleading. It is designed to trick Canadians and parliamentarians into thinking that CSIS didn’t do anything that was really ‘that’ bad. I fundamentally disagree with CSIS’ activities in this regard and, as a result, I’ve conducted a detailed evaluation of each sentence of the Service’s statement.

You can read my dissection of CSIS’ statement at Technology, Thoughts, and Trinkets.

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Canada’s spy agency illegally kept data for a decade, court rules

To be clear, the judge’s ruling:

  1. Found that CSIS had deliberately been misleading/lying to the court for a decade concerning the agency’s permanent retention of metadata;
  2. Raised the prospect of contempt of court proceedings against CSIS and its attorneys at the Department of Justice;
  3. Approved changes to unknown warrants (we’re not allowed, as members of the public, to know the warranting powers of CSIS it seems);
  4. Did not require CSIS to delete or stop using the metadata it had illegally collected, on grounds that doing so could raise jurisdictional issues. Translation: the information has been shared, or mixed with, foreign agencies’ metadata already and thus prevents the court from easily crafting a judgment around its use;
  5. CSIS did not believe that it was required to be fully transparent with the federal court that issues CSIS’ warrants on grounds that the court was ‘not an oversight body’;
  6. CSIS had internally, with Department of Justice guidance, secretly reinterpreted laws to cloak its actions in the guise of lawfulness (internally) while deliberately hiding such interpretations and the implications thereof from the court.

Canada has a national security consultation going on, and part of it raises the question of ‘does Canada have sufficient oversight and accountability for its national security operations?’ If you care about these issues, go and spend some time sending a message to the government.

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Document reveals hidden squabble between spies and diplomats

Following the passage of Canada’s Bill C-51 which, amongst other things, was intended to heighten information sharing amongst federal agencies, CSIS apparently expected to receive more information from Canadian diplomats abroad. Government Affairs Canada (GAC), however, has largely refused to share information with the security intelligence on grounds that CSIS’ actions could lead to the abuse of Canadians or those with whom Canada has a significant relationship. Moreover, the current Liberal government’s assertions it will be modifying C-51 has meant that GAC is unwilling to significantly share information until further clarity is provided with regards to the legislation.

Articles like this are helpful in reminding people that government is composed of competing institutions. And these institutions tend to focus on their own interests, first, which can promote significant conflict between the different parts of government. The reporting also showcases that even after bad legislation is passed that there are a host of ways in which authorizing legislation may be stopped or inhibited.

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CSIS can’t keep up with ‘daily’ state-sponsored cyber attacks | Toronto Star

CSIS can’t keep up with ‘daily’ state-sponsored cyber attacks:

OTTAWA—Canada’s spies admit they can’t keep up with daily cyber attacks from state-sponsored hackers, according to an internal report obtained by the Star.

Christopher Parsons at University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab said the documents point to a larger conflict that’s largely been taking place behind the scenes — the militarization of the Internet.

“Canada is hardly alone as the target — or originator — of state-sponsored hacking,” Parsons said.

As countries, including Canada, continue to develop both offensive and defensive Internet capabilities, he said it’s become urgent to come to an international consensus of what counts as legitimate targets in the Internet age.

“The internet has become militarized behind the backs of most citizens, and I think that if we’re not going to roll back that militarization entirely … at the very least principled agreements about what are legitimate and illegitimate modes of militarization have to be established,” Parsons said.

 

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CSIS’s New Powers Demand New Accountability Mechanisms

CSIS’s New Powers Demand New Accountability Mechanisms:

It is imperative that the Canadian public trust that CSIS is not acting in a lawless manner. And while improving how SIRC functions, or adding Parliamentary review, could regain or maintain that trust, a more cost-sensitive approach could involve statutory reporting. Regardless, something must be done to ensure that CSIS’ actions remain fully accountable to the public, especially given the new powers the Service may soon enjoy. Doing anything less would irresponsibly expand the state’s surveillance capabilities and threaten to dilute the public’s trust in its intelligence and security service.

 

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Canada’s spy agency helped prepare all-of-government approach in case Idle No More protests ‘escalated’: secret files

Given CSIS’s ongoing efforts to monitor for threats against national oil interests and other resource extraction companies and associated policies, it’s not necessarily a surprise that the security agency was focusing in on Idle No More. Native land is, after all, required to effectively mobilize resources across Canada.

This said, Canadians generally should be mindful that our security agency was “planning for every eventuality, concerned by the decentralized, leaderless nature of the protests and the multiple motivations and influences that drove them.“ Mindfulness is needed for two reasons: first, because CSIS’s concerns will likely lead to enhanced attempts to map communications patterns to divine ‘leaders’ and ‘centralization’ within activist groupings. Second, because CSIS’s activities are known to include stretching or breaking the law by lying to federal justices. CSIS’s targeting of Aboriginal groups shouldn’t be ignored by other Canadian citizens as not ultimately affecting them as well.

What might be most damaging about CSIS’s actions is how they will (continue to) damage relations between Canada and the Aboriginal people’s. Rather than trying to find a way of working with Canada’s native peoples the Canadian government has again classified them as prospective threats: that’s not how you develop a trusted negotiating relationship, let alone try to heal age-old wounds. And no matter how much surveillance CSIS engages in they can’t guard every mile of roads or pipelines that are used in extracting and transporting Canada’s natural resources.

Source: Canada’s spy agency helped prepare all-of-government approach in case Idle No More protests ‘escalated’: secret files