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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. ↩︎

Overclassification and Its Impacts

Photo by Wiredsmart on Pexels.com

Jason Healey and Robert Jervis have a thought provoking piece over at the Modern War Institute at West Point. The crux of the argument is that, as a result of overclassification, it’s challenging if not impossible for policymakers or members of the public (to say nothing of individual analysts in the intelligence community or legislators) to truly understand the nature of contemporary cyberconflict. While there’s a great deal written about how Western organizations have been targeted by foreign operators, and how Western governments have been detrimentally affected by foreign operations, there is considerably less written about the effects of Western governments’ own operations towards foreign states because those operations are classified.

To put it another way, there’s no real way of understanding the cause and effect of operations, insofar as it’s not apparent why foreign operators are behaving as they are in what may be reaction to Western cyber operations or perceptions of Western cyber operations. The kinds of communiques provided by American intelligence officials, while somewhat helpful, also tend to obscure as much as they reveal (on good days). Healey and Jervis write:

General Nakasone and others are on solid ground when highlighting the many activities the United States does not conduct, like “stealing intellectual property” for commercial profit or disrupting the Olympic opening ceremonies. There is no moral equivalent between the most aggressive US cyber operations like Stuxnet and shutting down civilian electrical power in wintertime Ukraine or hacking a French television station and trying to pin the blame on Islamic State terrorists. But it clouds any case that the United States is the victim here to include such valid complaints alongside actions the United States does engage in, like geopolitical espionage. The concern of course is a growing positive feedback loop, with each side pursuing a more aggressive posture to impose costs after each fresh new insult by others, a posture that tempts adversaries to respond with their own, even more aggressive posture.

Making things worse, the researchers and academics who are ostensibly charged with better understanding and unpacking what Western intelligence agencies are up to sometimes decline to fulfill their mandate. The reasons are not surprising: engaging in such revelations threaten possible career prospects, endanger the very publication of the research in question, or risk cutting off access to interview subjects in the future. Healey and Jervis focus on the bizarre logics of working and researching the intelligence community in the United States, saying (with emphasis added):

Think-tank staff and academic researchers in the United States often shy away from such material (with exceptions like Ben Buchanan) so as not to hamper their chances of a future security clearance. Even as senior researchers, we were careful not to directly quote NSA’s classified assessment of Iran, but rather paraphrased a derivative article.

A student, working in the Department of Defense, was not so lucky, telling us that to get through the department’s pre-publication review, their thesis would skip US offensive operations and instead focus on defense.

Such examples highlight the distorting effects of censorship or overclassification: authors are incentivized to avoid what patrons want ignored and emphasize what patrons want highlighted or what already exists in the public domain. In paper after paper over the decades, new historical truths are cumulatively established in line with patrons’ preferences because they control the flow and release of information.

What are the implications as written by Healey and Jervis? In intelligence communities the size of the United States’, information gets lost or not passed to whomever it ideally should be presented to. Overclassification also means that policy makers and legislators who aren’t deeply ‘in the know’ will likely engage in decisions based on half-founded facts, at best. In countries such as Canada, where parliamentary committees cannot access classified information, they will almost certainly be confined to working off of rumour, academic reports, government reports that are unclassified, media accounts that divulge secrets or gossip, and the words spoken by the heads of security and intelligence agencies. None of this is ideal for controlling these powerful organizations, and the selective presentation of what Western agencies are up to actually risks compounding broader social ills.

Legislative Ignorance and Law

One of the results of overclassification is that legislators, in particular, become ill-suited to actually understanding national security legislation that is presented before them. It means that members of the intelligence and national security communities can call for powers and members of parliament are largely prevented from asking particularly insightful questions, or truly appreciate the implications of the powers that are being asked for.

Indeed, in the Canadian context it’s not uncommon for parliamentarians to have debated a national security bill in committee for months and, when asked later about elements of the bill, they admit that they never really understood it in the first place. The same is true for Ministers who have, subsequently, signed off on broad classes of operations that have been authorized by said legislation.

Part of that lack of understanding is the absence of examples of how powers have been used in the past, and how they might be used in the future; when engaging with this material entirely in the abstract, it can be tough to grasp the likely or possible implications of any legislation or authorization that is at hand. This is doubly true in situations where new legislation or Ministerial authorization will permit secretive behaviour, often using secretive technologies, to accomplish equally secretive objectives.

Beyond potentially bad legislative debates leading to poorly understood legislation being passed into law and Ministers consenting to operations they don’t understand, what else may follow from overclassification?

Nationalism, Miscalculated Responses, and Racism

To begin with, it creates a situation where ‘we’ in the West are being attacked by ‘them’ in Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, or other distant lands. I think this is problematic because it casts Western nations, and especially those in the Five Eyes, as innocent victims in the broader world of cyber conflict. Of course, individuals with expertise in this space will scoff at the idea–we all know that ‘our side’ is up to tricks and operations as well!–but for the general public or legislators, that doesn’t get communicated using similarly robust or illustrative examples. The result is that the operations of competitor nations can be cast as acts of ‘cyberwar’ without any appreciation that those actions may, in fact, be commensurate with the operations that Five Eyes nations have themselves launched. In creating an Us versus Them, and casting the Five Eyes and West more broadly as victims, a kind of nationalism can be incited where ‘They’ are threats whereas ‘We’ are innocents. In a highly complex and integrated world, these kinds of sharp and inaccurate concepts can fuel hate and socially divisive attitudes, activities, and policies.

At the same time, nations may perceive themselves to be targeted by Five Eyes nations, and deduce effects to Five Eyes operations even when that isn’t the case. When a set of perimeter logs show something strange, or when computers are affected by ransomware or wiperware, or another kind of security event takes place, these less resourced nations may simply assume that they’re being targeted by a Five Eyes operation. The result is that foreign government may both drum up nationalist concerns about ‘the West’ or ‘the Five Eyes’ while simultaneously queuing up their own operations to respond to what may, in fact, have been an activity that was totally divorced from the Five Eyes.

I also worry that the overclassification problem can lead to statements in Western media that demonizes broad swathes of the world as dangerous or bad, or threatening for reasons that are entirely unapparent because Western activities are suppressed from public commentary. Such statements arise with regular frequency, where China is attributed to this or to that, or when Russia or Middle Eastern countries are blamed for the most recent ill on the Internet.

The effect of such statements can be to incite differential degrees of racism. When mainstream newspapers, as an example, constantly beat the drum that the Chinese government (and, by extension, Chinese people) are threats to the stability and development of national economies or world stability, over time this has the effect of teaching people that China’s government and citizens alike are dangerous. Moreover, without information about Western activities, the operations conducted by foreign agencies can be read out of context with the effect that people of certain ethnicities are regarded as inherently suspicious or sneaky as compared to those (principally white) persons who occupy the West. While I would never claim that the overclassification of Western intelligence operations are the root cause of racism in societies I do believe that overclassification can fuel misinformation about the scope of geopolitics and Western intelligence gathering operations, with the consequence of facilitating certain subsequent racist attitudes.

Solutions

A colleague of mine has, in the past, given presentations and taught small courses in some of Canada’s intelligence community. This colleague lacks any access to classified materials and his classes focus on how much high quality information is publicly available when you know how and where to look for it, and how to analyze it. Students are apparently regularly shocked: they have access to the classified materials, but their understandings of the given issues are routinely more myopic and less robust. However, because they have access to classified material they tend to focus as much, or more, on it because the secretive nature of the material makes it ‘special’.

This is not a unique issue and, in fact, has been raised in the academic literature. When someone has access to special or secret knowledge they are often inclined to focus in on that material, on the assumption that it will provide insights in excess of what are available in open source. Sometimes that’s true, but oftentimes less so. And this ‘less so’ becomes especially problematic when operating in an era where governments tend to classify a great deal of material simply because the default is to assume that anything could potentially be revelatory to an agency’s operations. In this kind of era, overvaluing classified materials can lead to less insightful understandings of the issues of the day while simultaneously not appreciating that much of what is classified, and thus cast as ‘special’, really doesn’t provide much of an edge when engaging in analysis.

The solution is not to declassify all materials but, instead, to adopt far more aggressive declassification processes. This could, as just an example, entail tying declassification in some way to organizations’ budgets, such that if they fail to declassify materials their budgets are forced to be realigned in subsequent quarters or years until they make up from the prior year(s)’ shortfalls. Extending the powers of Information Commissioners, which are tasked with forcing government institutions to publish documents when they are requested by members of the public or parliamentarians (preferably subject to a more limited set of exemptions than exist today) might help. And having review agencies which can unpack higher-level workings of intelligence community organizations can also help.

Ultimately, we need to appreciate that national security and intelligence organizations do not exist in a bubble, but that their mandates mean that the externalized problems linked with overclassification are typically not seen as issues that these organizations, themselves, need to solve. Nor, in many cases, will they want to solve them: it can be very handy to keep legislators in the dark and then ask for more powers, all while raising the spectre of the Other and concealing the organizations’ own activities.

We do need security and intelligence organizations, but as they stand today their tendency towards overclassification runs the risk of compounding a range of deleterious conditions. At least one way of ameliorating those conditions almost certainly includes reducing the amount of material that these agencies currently classify as secret and thus kept from public eye. On this point, I firmly agree with Healey and Jervis.

Links for November 16-20, 2020

  • The future of U.S. Foreign intelligence surveillance. “Despite President Trump’s many tweets about wiretapping, his administration failed to support meaningful reforms to traditional FISA, Section 702, and EO 12333. Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s foreign intelligence apparatus has continued to expand, violating Americans’ constitutional rights and threatening a $7.1 trillion transatlantic economic relationship. Given the stakes, the next President and Congress must prioritize surveillance reform in 2021.” // I can’t imagine an American administration passing even a small number of the proposed legislative updates suggested in this article. Still, it is helpful to reflect on why such measures should be passed to protect global citizens’ rights and, more broadly, why they almost certainly will not be passed into law.
  • Why Obama fears for our democracy. “But more than anything, I wanted this book to be a way in which people could better understand the world of politics and foreign policy, worlds that feel opaque and inaccessible. Part of my goal is describing quirks and people’s family backgrounds, just to remind people that these are humans and you can understand them and make judgments.” // The whole interview is a good read, and may signal some of the pressures on tech policy the incoming administration may face from their own former leader, but more than anything I think that Obama’s relentless effort to contextualize, socialize, and humanize politics speaks to the underlying ethos he took with him into office. And, more than that, it showcases that he truly is hopeful in an almost Kantian sense; throughout the interview I couldn’t help but feel I was reading someone who had been deeply touched by “Perpetual Peace” amongst other essays in Kant’s Political Writings.
  • Ralfy’s world – whisky magazine. “At a time when the debate over new and old media is raging full on, and questions are asked about integrity and independence, Ralfy is just getting on with it – blogging randomly in the true spirit of the medium and making do it yourself recordings about whiskies he has tasted. Or to put it in his words: “My malt mission over the last two years has been a website called ralfy.com for all things whisky, so long as it’s unorthodox, marketing-light, informative, independent, educational …and entertaining.” // I’ve learned, and continue to learn, a lot from Ralfy’s YouTube channel. But I have to admit it’s more than a bit uncomfortable figuring out the ethics of watching videos from a guy who has inaccurate understandings of vaccines and the pandemics alike. His knowledge of whiskey is on the whole excellent. His knowledge of epidemiology and immunology…let’s just say less so.
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If anything, what [Bytes, Bombs and Spies] points out is how little value you can get from traditional political-science terms and concepts. Escalatory ladder makes little sense with a domain where a half-decade of battlefield preparation and pre-placement are required for attacks, where attacks have a more nebulous connection to effect, deniability is a dominant characteristic, and where intelligence gathering and kinetic effect require the same access and where emergent behavior during offensive operations happens far beyond human reaction time.

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A Deep Dive Into Russian Surveillance In The Silicon Valley Area

Via Foreign Policy:

This focus on signals and technical intelligence persisted until much more recently, multiple former U.S. intelligence officials told me. “It was almost like everyone they had there was a technical guy, as opposed to a human-intelligence guy,” one former official recalled. “The way they protected those people — they were rarely out in the community. It was work, home, work, home. When they’d go out and about, to play hockey or to drink, they’d be in a group. It was hard to penetrate.” The same official also noted that San Francisco was integral to the discovery by U.S. intelligence of a new class of Russian “technical-type” intelligence officer, working for the rough Russian equivalent of the National Security Agency, before this organization was eventually folded by Putin back into the FSB. This group, which was not based at the consulate itself, was identified via its members’ travel patterns — they would visit the Bay Area frequently — and the types of individuals, all in high-tech development, with whom they sought contact. According to this former U.S. official, these Russian intelligence officers were particularly interested in discussing cryptology and the Next Generation Internet program.

But it was the consulate’s location — perched high atop that hill in Pacific Heights, with a direct line of sight out to the ocean — that likely determined the concentration of signals activity. Certain types of highly encrypted communications cannot be transmitted over long distances, and multiple sources told me that U.S. officials believed that Russian intelligence potentially took advantage of the consulate’s location to communicate with submarines, trawlers, or listening posts located in international waters off the Northern California coast. (Russian intelligence officers may also have been remotely transmitting data to spy stations offshore, multiple former intelligence officials told me, explaining the odd behaviors on Stinson Beach.) It is also “very possible,” said one former intelligence official, that the Russians were using the San Francisco consulate to monitor the movements, and perhaps communications, of the dozen or so U.S. nuclear-armed submarines that routinely patrol the Pacific from their base in Washington state.

All in all, said this same official, it was “very likely” that the consulate functioned for Russia as a classified communications hub for the entire western United States — and, perhaps, the entire western part of the hemisphere.

There is a lot to this very long form piece, including descriptions of Russian intelligence operations and communications patterns, how lawful Russian overflights of American territory might be used for a variety of intelligence purposes, and the Trump administration’s likely cluelessness about why closing the Russian consulate in San Francisco was so significant. But most interestingly, for me, was how the consulate likely functioned as an outpost for Russian signals intelligence operations, both due to the depth of analysis in the article but also for what it tells us about how Western-allied consulates and diplomatic facilities are likely used.1 In effect, the concerns raised by former FBI and other American counter-intelligence officers speaks to how America and her allies may conduct their own forms of surveillance.

  1. In a provincial sense, the concerns and opinions espoused by American counter-intelligence officers also raises questions as to the role of Canada’s significant number of diplomatic facilities scattered throughout China and other regions where the United States is more challenged in building out State Department facilities.
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Plant Memories

Europeans citizens and their settlers have long treated the natural world as mere ‘stuff’ that can be manipulated to achieve our human-centric ends. It wasn’t that long ago that animals were regarded as dumb beasts without the ability to genuinely feel pain or have thoughts or memories. It turns out that our presumptions of plants are similarly undergoing radical reevaluations by some in the scientific community.

After training the plants, Gagliano withheld the light. When she next turned on the fans, she had switched them to the opposite branch of the Y shape. She wanted to see if the plants had learned to associate airflow with light, or its absence, strongly enough to react to the breeze, even if it was coming from a different direction, with no light as a signal. It worked. The plants that had been trained to associate the two stimuli grew toward the fan; the plants that had been taught to separate them grew away from the airflow.

“In that context, memory is actually not the interesting bit—of course you have memory, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to do the trick,” she says. “Memory is part of the learning process. But—who is doing the learning? What is actually happening? Who is it that is actually making the association between fan and light?”

It’s telling that Gagliano uses the word “who,” which many people would be unlikely to apply to plants. Even though they’re alive, we tend to think of plants as objects rather than dynamic, breathing, growing beings. We see them as mechanistic things that react to simple stimuli. But to some extent, that’s true of every type of life on Earth. Everything that lives is a bundle of chemicals and electrical signals in dialogue with the environment in which it exists. A memory, such as of the heat of summer on last year’s beach vacation, is a biochemical marker registered from a set of external inputs. A plant’s epigenetic memory, of the cold of winter months, on a fundamental level, is not so different.

It’s absolutely amazing to learn how much we do not know, and similarly striking that so many people actively work to prevent scientists from learning more about the natural world.

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Evaluating the Buzzfeed dossier, by a former Intelligence Analyst

Individual details, like lawyer Michael Cohen’s trip to Prague or the spelling of a name or two, may indeed be disproven. Not everything in these reports is 100% accurate.

However, it is extremely important to emphasize that micro-level inaccuracies do not detract from the credibility of the two broad points that I establish above: that Trump’s organization has had a relationship with the Kremlin and that he is subject to blackmail.

This is one of the better analyses of how to understand the dossier that was released this week on Donald Trump’s activities in Russia and involvement with the Russian government.

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THE REAL RISK BEHIND TRUMP’S TAIWAN CALL

From The Australian:

For a piece I published in September, about what Trump’s first term could look like, I spoke to a former Republican White House official whom Trump has consulted, who told me, “Honestly, the problem with Donald is he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” It turns out that is half of the problem; the other half is that he has surrounded himself with people who know how much he doesn’t know. Since Election Day, Trump has largely avoided receiving intelligence briefings, either because he doesn’t think it’s important that he receive them or because he just doesn’t care about them. George W. Bush, in the first months of 2001, ignored warnings about Osama bin Laden. Only in our darkest imaginings can we wonder what warnings Trump is ignoring now.

While the point that Trump’s team is dangerously able to manipulate him is fair, linking that capability with Trump not receiving intelligence briefings (and the 9/11 attacks) is unfair and misleading. Other past President-elects have also been slow to receive intelligence briefings and the current tempo of such briefings remains a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the United States presidency.

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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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Yahoo May Have Exposed Rogers Customer Emails to US Spies

Motherboard:

“Any program that scans all the mail that Yahoo has access to would have scanned this email,” Gillmor wrote me in a message.

“If Yahoo chose to segment their scanning by limiting it only to mails that have ‘@yahoo.com’ email addresses [and omitted those sent from @rogers.com], of course, then they would have chosen to exclude this email from the scan,” Gillmor continued. “It’s not clear to me whether any such constraint was in place, though.”

“I’d imagine that, yes, the program would have applied to Rogers customer emails, unless Yahoo elected to specifically exclude them,” wrote Marczak in an email.

Yahoo declined to comment on whether the alleged system filtered out emails from Rogers customers.

Tobi Cohen, a spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, confirmed that Rogers consulted the office in the wake of the Yahoo hack. But as far as the possibility that Rogers customer emails had been siphoned into a surveillance dragnet goes, “Given we don’t have detailed information about the matter, we are not in a position to comment,” Cohen wrote.

When asked if Rogers was aware of the allegations against Yahoo or if the company is concerned that a backdoor could have affected its customers, spokesperson Garas referred me to Yahoo’s statement and wrote that “as such, we believe this matter is closed.”

Great to know that Rogers thinks it shouldn’t (or, worse, doesn’t have to) explain how one of its contracted service providers may have grossly violated the privacy of Rogers’ customers.