A rare insight into Canada’s most secretive spy agency

Even if the public reports on our spooks don’t say much they are nevertheless welcome.

OTTAWA, CANADA — I never thought I’d see this day. My old stomping grounds, CSE (Communications Security Establishment), Canada’s ‘electronic spy agency’, has just put out its very first public report. Let the trumpets sound and the banners fly!

OK, technically it is not my old stomping grounds as I ‘stomped’ from 1983 to 2001 at the Sir Leonard Tilley (SLT) Building in the southern part of Ottawa, and not at the ultramodern new CSE HQ right next to the CSIS HQ (where I also ‘stomped’ from 2001-2015). Trust me, the new digs is a wonder of the 21st century when compared to the freezing cold in winter and stultifyingly hot in summer conditions at SLT.

The report is short and light on details but this should be of a surprise to no one. It is an intelligence agency after all and we all know that our spies are circumspect with what they say and what they don’t say (‘Loose Lips Sink Ships’ and all that stuff). These organisations are in the business of keeping secrets, not splashing them all over the Internet.

This first ever ‘public report‘ is divided into six sections:

  • Message from the Chief (Shelly Bruce, with whom I worked way back in the mid-1980s: she was not Chief then);
  • Setting CSE’s strategic outlook;
  • Canada’s security, prosperity and competitiveness;
  • Engaging Canadians;
  • Our people: A culture of community;
  • CSE by the numbers.

In all honesty a lot of this is typical Government of Canada dry, boring pablum, unlike the actual work that CSE does on our behalf. Or at least I assume that the work is exciting as it sure was when I was there (I can only imagine how sexier it is now).

To me, the most interesting part is the third one (Canada’s security, prosperity and competitiveness). It is here that we gain a tiny window into what CSE does from day to day. The first part talks a little of the new Cyber Centre, described as “deliver(ing) world-class dynamic defence of Canadian government networks”. It goes on to say that it foils a BILLION ‘malicious actors’ who try to penetrate GOC systems EVERY DAY. Wow, that’s a lot and sure wasn’t the reality when I worked there!

The first part talks a little of the new Cyber Centre, described as “deliver(ing) world-class dynamic defence of Canadian government networks”. It goes on to say that it foils a BILLION ‘malicious actors’ who try to penetrate GOC systems EVERY DAY.

Another neat thing that CSE is doing is to liaise with private industry to keep companies apprised of what the spies have learned on cyber threat. I always believed that expanding the remit of information sharing was the way to go, but there were always obstacles in the road (secrecy, i.e. sources and methods), so this too is a good thing too. And one more: CSE worked alongside CSIS, the RCMP and Global Affairs Canada (GAC) to keep an eye on foreign threats during the 2019 election. Given that we know certain nations are engaged in these activities it is important for these agencies to stand on guard for us.

Finally, there is the section on foreign intelligence, where I laboured for 17 years. CSE states that it “provided foreign intelligence reports to more than 2100 clients in over 25 departments and agencies within the Government of Canada in response to a range of priorities related to international affairs, defence, and security.” My bias aside, this was indeed a very fascinating part of the organisation to work in. I am sure it is of equal fascination today.

All in all, then, a very welcome peek behind the espionage curtain. While in large part protecting what they do and, more importantly, how they do it, CSE has given us a taste of why we have them and why we spend a big chunk of change on it. This is a good start: more please!

This contribution was published on The Hill Times on July 20. 2020

Share your thoughts and comments below
Phil Gurski

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *