Fighting Beijing’s Interference: Silos Are Good for Storing Grain, Not Shielding Vital Security Information

Intelligence is meant to be shared with those who need to know to make better decisions: why does the Canadian government not get that?

This piece first appeared in the Epoch Times Canada on August 5, 2023.

I live in a small village in eastern Ontario. Within minutes of leaving my home I am in farm country. The surrounding lands are devoted to cattle (dairy) operations and vegetables (largely corn). As a consequence, I see a lot of silos on my drives through the beautiful landscapes.

Silos are, of course, a very important structure for farmers. They can store a variety of things, but silage (cattle feed) is one of the most crucial. For a silo to work well it has to be sheltered from the elements. Exposing feedstock to rain and/or snow can lead to mildew and rot and spoil the contents. As a consequence, keeping a silo away from everything else is a good strategy.

When it comes to information, however, siloing is rarely a good idea. Sitting on data that can be used by others to make better decisions means that policies and plans cannot be as ideal as they should be. We live in an information age, and the more we share the more we can determine which data is valid and which is not (not a small matter in this era of dis- and misinformation!)

In this vein, the intelligence community has long been accused of holding its cards too close to its chest. There are, of course, valid reasons for some of this reticence: source protection is the highest of those. Intelligence agencies operate in the shadows after all, and gain access to information from sensitive sources. Disclosing these elements usually leads to their disappearance (for instance a spied-upon target may change the way it sends its data) or, in the worst case, the death of a human source.

Nevertheless, there are ways for these organizations to pass on what they know, without compromising their origins or methods. This takes some ingenuity, but it can be done. The fact that I write these columns on intelligence regularly, after having worked for three decades with Canada’s premier intelligence services (CSE and CSIS), demonstrates the feasibility of having an open dialogue on these matters.

We should thus be disappointed by a recent news item whereby during a briefing on Chinese foreign interference last March, CSIS told B.C. Premier David Eby that it could not share secret information. The spy agency reportedly said to the premier when he asked for more details that it had only “one client,” i.e. the Canadian federal government.

This is a problem that needs fixing.

Historically it may have made sense to limit intelligence to federal officials. CSIS is after all a federal agency that works across Canada and abroad to provide the best data possible to senior people, up to and including the prime minister. Furthermore, the highest security clearances, necessary to see and retain intelligence, have traditionally been granted only to those at the federal level. None of this implies that changes cannot be made.

When it comes to foreign interference, a threat CSIS looks at under section 2b) of its act, China is by far the most egregious actor. It has been engaged for decades in trying to spread its influence across Canada to ensure that politicians are elected who are not inimical to its interests. More importantly, these politicians work at all three levels: federal, provincial, and municipal. If we are to avail ourselves of the best tools to counteract these efforts by the People’s Republic, should we not bring the relevant people into the inner circle of intelligence?

There are of course rules to be followed. Those who do gain access to sensitive collection must be educated on how to handle it and what not to do. We have been doing this at the federal stratum for a very long time so we know how to perform this function. To extend this, carefully and strategically, to the provincial and municipal rings is not only not difficult, it is primordial.

The PRC has been getting away with spying on us for a long time. It is high time to counter these actions, which are most definitely not in our interests. To do so, we need our spies to educate more officials. Using a military analogy, you cannot win a war with inadequate resources. Expanding our knowledge base on Chinese actions to more individuals in official positions with a “need to know” would be a great start. Although I dislike the overuse of the phrase “make war on,” Canada simply has to do better to prevent the Chinese regime from getting what it wants too easily. Bringing in the premiers (and mayors) is a no-brainer.

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.