The implications of the US-Canada tiff for national security

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on June 25, 2018

Canada and the US cooperate on many issues in many forums: the G7 (even with last week’s horror show thanks to the US President), the G20, the UN as well as a whole host of international bodies, in addition to numerous bilateral councils and exchanges.  One of the world’s premier bodies when it comes to intelligence sharing is the so-called ‘5 eyes’ arrangement.  Built after the Second World War it consists of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the US and covers a variety of intelligence agencies ranging from HUMINT (human intelligence) to SIGINT (signals intelligence) to IMINT (satellite imagery) among others.  It is not a perfect arrangement and the Brits and Americans do make larger contributions than the remaining three members but it has stood the test of time and served each nation well.

Is all this on the cusp of change?

It is hard to say but given the unpredictable performance of Donald Trump it is not beyond possible that the spirit of cooperation and collaboration long established among these five partners could suffer.  It often seems these days that international arrangements and long-standing practices are but one questionable Tweet away from ruin.  What, if anything would a weaker and less effective 5 eyes community mean for Canada?  It depends.

If we look at the primary purveyors of intelligence to the Canadian government, i.e. CSE and CSIS, we see very different impacts from a significant shift in the US position in the wake of a presidential pique.  More generally, this administration has already issued a new ‘Northern Border Strategy’ through the Department of Homeland Security in which it is stated that “potential terror threats are primarily from homegrown violent extremists in Canada who are not included in the U.S. Government’s consolidated terrorist watch list and could therefore enter the United States legally at Northern Border ports of entry (POEs) without suspicion.”

Before I get to the consequences for the two aforementioned agencies in an uncertain, and largely unpredictable, Trumpian world, I cannot let that DHS claim go unchallenged.  While it is certainly possible that ‘homegrown violent extremists’ could enter the US to cause havoc it was my experience at CSIS that this threat was rare to virtually non-existent.  The Ahmed Ressam case from way back in late 1999 notwithstanding – he tried to cross into the US from BC with the intent to drive to Los Angeles airport to carry out an attack there – I cannot recall a single other instance where a Canadian had such intent in the US.  No, it is not out of the question but it does raise valid challenges as to why DHS is electing to issue its warning now.  Could it have anything to do with Trump’s newfound disdain for our country?  Hmmm, good question.

If there were to be a significant downturn in intelligence sharing (which by the way I don’t think will happen for reasons I will discuss below), the impact on CSE and CSIS would be very different.  Although I must couch my analysis on CSE carefully as I left that organisation at the end of 2000, it seems clear to me that a severed, or even partially-severed, relationship with the US would be very bad for CSE. Within the 5 eyes SIGINT partners, the US’ NSA has always been the elephant in the room in terms of analysts and collection platforms.  In my days the vast, vast majority of finished intelligence reports provided to Canadian customers came from US sources, not Canadian ones.  Losing that flow, or having it diminished, would have a disproportionate effect on CSE’s ability to satisfy the intelligence requirements of Canadian government officials.

What about CSIS?  Here the impact could be less serious.  The bulk of its collection is domestic, effected by intelligence officers and backed up by federal court warrants and surveillance, all done in house.  Reliance on the US to determine threats within Canada is much less an issue for CSIS, which can also work alongside the RCMP on Canadian files.  A drop in collaboration with the US, then, would not be as important for Canadian government officials as would the CSE case represent.

Quickly, there are other collection and reporting platforms such as satellites where the removal of a US contribution would be significant.  We have built our mutually beneficial intelligence and information sharing relationship since WWII and Canada cannot simply replicate much of what the US can offer.

In the end I am less certain that even Donald Trump can wreck what has become a world-class intelligence sharing club.  The 5 eyes community has been a huge success for all of its member nations and there is little justification for  undermining it, Presidential whims notwithstanding.  The heads of the constituent organisations know these benefits and would likely fight any unnecessary reduction in the back and forth of intelligence collaboration.  Let’s hope that the long-established atmosphere of sharing continues and that saner heads prevail.  Our security rests on these relationships.



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.

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