Canada’s new National Security Intelligence Review Agency gets off on the wrong foot

Most Canadians could be forgiven for not having a deep sense of what the Canadian intelligence community is or what it does. We seldom talk about intelligence matters and most references to these issues come out in the wake of mistakes, perceived or real. Think Air India or Maher Arar and you get an idea what I mean here.

In fact, if you were to ask Joe or Jill Canadian a question such as “What are the components of the Canadian intelligence community?” I’d be surprised if you received many robust answers. Most (?) people might know about CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, created in 1984), fewer about CSE (Communications Security Establishment, created in 1946), and beyond that you would probably elicit a shrug. For the record, I toiled at both: from 1983-2000 at CSE and at CSIS from 2001-2015.

Moving one step further if you look at intelligence oversight our average knowledge would plummet. Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) which oversaw CSIS? Office of the Communications Security Establishment Commissioner (OCSEC) which performed the same function for CSE? Who are these people? Or better yet, who WERE they and what did they do?

You see, these functions have been replaced by the Trudeau government by the new National Security and Intelligence Review Agency or NSIRA. This body does what SIRC and OCSEC used to do and consists of six members (and support staff I assume). From what I can gather they are mostly lawyers and an academic. I think they are probably all fine, distinguished Canadians.

There is a problem though: not a single one has ANY background in intelligence. None. Nada. Zip. No former investigators, surveillants, analysts, linguists or special ops wizards (think Q in the James Bond films). In other words, they are all intelligence newbies.

Does this strike you as insane as it does me? Here are a few analogies. Imagine a medical review board with not a single doctor. Or a science review board with nary a scientist. Or an economic oversight committee sans bankers or economists? Sounds dumb, right? That is because it is.

Lest you might state that this is just Gurski bemoaning the fact that he was not asked (no, I was not approached), nothing could be further from the truth. A job of this ilk holds zero attraction for me and I am starting finally to really retire so no thank you.

But the government erred in neglecting intelligence professionals for these are the people who know what to look for and what questions to ask. They have an in-depth understanding of the world of spydom and how it works. Not a bunch of otherwise qualified MPs, judges and academics. Hell I could easily come up with a whole slew of former intelligence officials who would fit the bill: Ray Boisvert and Luc Portelance come immediately to mind (full disclosure: both are friends of mine).

What this sorry tale tells me, or better reiterates for me, is that the Canadian government has a very immature appreciation for intelligence and what it can do. This is not new, at least not to me: I have known this for more than 35 years. We lack the robust intelligence infrastructure and appreciation that allies such as the US and UK have long had. Maybe it doesn’t really matter: after all we have often been called the ‘peaceable kingdom‘. Except that it does matter and Canadians deserve real oversight led by those in the know.

In the end I wish the new NSIRA well in their endeavours and mandate. I have nothing personal against any of them. They are simply the wrong Canadians for the job.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

2 replies on “Canada’s new National Security Intelligence Review Agency gets off on the wrong foot”

Thx for the feedback. I am sure there are other sites but not sure if there are many that speak largely from a former insider’s perspective

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