CSIS is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t

Let me get this straight. CSIS is criticized when it refuses to divulge anything at all. It is criticized when it at least makes an effort to let out some information. Why should the intelligence agency even try then? Would it not be better for them just to go back to the old days of saying zilch?

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on October 21, 2019


So, what comes to your mind when you think about spy agencies? I would guess that openness and transparency are not at the top of your lists. After all, these agencies work in the shadows with ‘secret’ information. Is it any wonder that they do not have an open door policy?

And yet they are getting better, albeit slowly, at allowing the public some glances into what takes place behind their walls. And that includes our own CSIS – the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. And yes, the CSIS logo does represent an old palisade, erected to keep Canada safe from outside threats (and Canadians frustrated at peeking at what is inside those gates).

Here’s a story you rarely come across. CSIS was recently named winners by Canada’s Information Commissioner/’Watchdog’ Caroline Maynard of an annual award as ‘role models for openness and transparency for the federal bureaucracy‘.

Cue the outrage

Access to Information advocate Ken Rubin stated that “this award makes an absolute mockery of the Access to Information law,. Sucking up to bureaucrats with an award like this is not going to change things.”

Others complained that the names of the Access to Information team (ATIP) are secret, that most of the responses they issue to the public consist of letters stating they can’t confirm or deny specific government information exists and that CSIS won’t even confirm that a photo was taken of them accepting an award. And for this they win the ‘open book of the year’ prize??

Let me get this straight. CSIS is criticised when it refuses to divulge anything at all. It is criticised when it at least makes an effort to let out some information. Why should the intelligence agency even try then?

Would it not be better for them just to go back to the old days of saying zilch?

Here is how it actually happens. A request comes in, sometimes narrowly focused, sometimes incredibly vague. The ATIP team looks at each request and determines which documents, if any, meet the query. If some are found, the officers redact the parts that are classified, which, hardly surprisingly, are often numerous and constitute most of the document in question (hence all the blacked-out parts). The recipient gets a reply and is, I imagine, seldom satisfied.

CSIS Director David Vigneault, pictured May 13, 2019, appearing at the House Public Safety and National Security Committee. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

CSIS has three things it has to protect most of all

These are methods (how it collects intelligence), sources (where it gets it), and anything related to an ongoing operation (to prevent having the whole thing go belly up). To my mind, everything else should be on the table, at least in theory, although there are always differences on what constitutes sensitive information. For the record, when I was asked to edit my own documents that could have been released under access to information law I tended to be as liberal as I could.

I am puzzled as to the shock and anger at this announcement.  It is not possible to make everyone happy all of the time. 

I am puzzled as to the shock and anger at this announcement. CSIS has to protect secret intelligence and could easily tell the Canadian public to pound sand. Yet it doesn’t. It tries to inform the citizenry to some extent, which is probably a lot more than can be said about similar agencies in other countries. Could it do more? Yes, but give it time. After all, we are talking about an agency which for decades has instructed its staff to not tell anyone where they worked (aside from the anodyne ‘Public Safety’ or ‘Solicitor General’).

It is not possible to make everyone happy all of the time. That CSIS is pulling back the curtain, even if it is just a smidgen, should make some contented however.

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. He worked at CSIS from 2001 to 2015.