A lack of trust in security agencies makes us less safe

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on September 2, 2019.

It should come as a surprise to no one that people in many parts of the world lack confidence in important public institutions. Whether we are talking about governments in general or more specifically agencies such as law enforcement and security intelligence, there is a substantial cohort that does not believe these are doing the job expected of them. Of course it is true that in many nations these institutions provide ample reasons why citizens should not have faith in them: rampant corruption, economic inequality, cronyism, ineptitude and even an abject inability to carry out basic governance. In this light it is not hard to see why populations have a low regard for those that govern them. It is possible that this lack of trust is behind some of the moves to support populist regimes which promise to clean house and ‘turn out the bastards’, albeit through policies that are on occasion exclusionary and harsh (towards parts of society deemed undesirable: e.g. immigrants).

Canada appears to be an outlier in this sense. As a 2018 article in Policy Options noted “in spite of growing populist trends, Canadians’ confidence in major public institutions has remained steady for the past decade.” The author added that “Canadians continue to have an underlying confidence in a range of important national institutions, even if it does not extend to all of their policies and actions. This is an essential distinction to understand, so as not to misread the public sentiment and lose sight of our society’s resilience in this time of political and cultural turbulence.”

These statistics are welcome and constitute a good news story. We as Canadians should celebrate the attitudes we have and recognise that, flaws and all, we are indeed fortunate, especially when lined up against other nations. The system is far from perfect but it is indeed very good.

In all this rah-rah sentiment there is at least one dark cloud. Although a 2018 Ekos poll demonstrated that “a majority of Canadians believe the federal government can be trusted to keep them safe while protecting their privacy” a significant proportion appear to lack basic knowledge of the security agencies that actually do that work on a daily basis. Furthermore, some recent stories have cast doubt on the activities of one particular agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

CSIS has been accused of many things over its 35-year history and many of those accusations are ill-founded, based in part on the aforementioned absence of understanding of what CSIS does (just a reminder that I worked at CSIS for 15 years). The agency does itself few favours by tending not to disclose why it does what it does: this is of course understandable as it is a security intelligence service that deals in secret information. Nevertheless, the vacuum created by the traditional ‘no comment’ is usually filled by half truths and, worse, those seeking to undermine CSIS out of a profound dislike for the organisation.

A recent story in Macleans illustrates this point well. An articling student with a Canadian legal firm claims that CSIS agents first contacted him when he was a student at Dalhousie University and was so rattled that he wondered how he had come to be on the Service’s radar. Unconvinced that CSIS was truly interested in ‘outreach’ he became convinced that the agency saw MSAs – Muslim Student Associations of which he was a president at Dal – as ‘fronts for terrorist organizations’.

Following what he clearly saw as an unnerving experience Ramz Aziz now advises students, Muslim or otherwise, to consider refusing to meet with CSIS if approached, seek free legal advice, and, if a meeting takes place, “bring a friend along to observe from a distance.”

I could chalk this up to paranoia or a total ignorance of why CSIS exists but I will go in a different direction. Rightly or wrongly, the manner in which a CSIS investigator contacted Mr. Aziz went horribly awry. We have only his word on the nature of that communication to go on – again CSIS will not comment – yet irrespective of what transpired a Canadian concluded that CSIS had acted improperly. This is not good.

In other writings I have tried to explain why CSIS would see MSAs as appropriate sources of information on Islamist extremism and radicalisation so I will not rehash those arguments here (note that no one is saying that MSAs are the source of the extremism). Still, there is clearly a sensitivity at having the nation’s security agencies asking questions about a frightful topic like terrorism and while CSIS has every right to do so under its mandate it has to ensure that when it engages with these Canadian bodies it does so carefully and with much prior preparation.

Many will not give CSIS the time of day: that is indeed your right as a Canadian. In addition it is not impossible that some interactions initiated by CSIS have been less than optimally carried out: the Service is staffed by imperfect humans after all. What we have to remember, though, is that CSIS fulfills an important role in our country and is there to help keep us safe from threats like terrorism. Every Canadian has a duty to assist organisations like CSIS in identifying these threats, which are very real.

CSIS can and should do a better job at explaining its mandate and ensuring that its interactions with the public are above reproach. Canadians can and should do a better job at educating themselves about CSIS and national security. No one wins by refusing to cooperate with CSIS or other security organisations. Our collective national safety is everyone’s task. We cannot let a shortfall of trust undermine that safety.

Phil Gurski is the President of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and a former senior strategic analyst at CSIS.