It is time to take the annual terrorist threat report out of Public Safety

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on May 13, 2019.

If there are any people at Public Safety Canada (PSC) who do not already dislike me, perhaps intensely, I am confident that this column will quickly lead them to the vast majority who have already PNGed me from the department (full disclosure: I worked in the National Security Policy office as a secondee from CSIS from October 2013 until my retirement from the civil service in April 2015). I am neutral on this situation: my so-called ‘retirement’ has kept me very busy without the need to go back to the department on contract as many retirees do.

The topic that has led me to criticise PSC is none other than the recent embarrassing flipflopping of the department on the annual Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada. This document is (or perhaps was: it may have shifted in my absence) published by the National Security division and is an unclassified paper that helps to inform Canadians on the current terrorist threat we face. It draws on what the actual experts – i.e. CSIS and the RCMP – know but distills it down to eliminate anything classified and is releasable to the general population.

The 2018 offering, as has been widely reported, has been changed twice in response to pressure by lobby groups over some of the contents. First, in reaction to opposition to the phrase ‘Sikh extremism’ the text was altered to refer to “some individuals in Canada continue to support violent means to establish an independent state within India”. Then the words Sunni and Shia now read “individuals or groups who are inspired by violent ideologies and terrorist groups, such as Daesh or al-Qaida (AQ)” and “individuals who support terrorist groups such as Hizballah.” Aside from the fact that these changes are not accurate and are purely political in nature, they point to a larger issue, one that has been clear, at least to me, for some time. To wit, the annual public report on the terrorist threat to Canada should not be crafted by civil servants at Public Safety Canada, very few of whom have any background with the agencies that actually do counter-terrorism in our country or have any expertise in terrorism.

Public Safety Canada is simply the wrong shop to pen one of the few pieces of information on terrorism in our country that the average Canadian can read. Most of the information on terrorist trends and actions are secret and written by CSIS and/or the RCMP for the benefit of government officials with a need to know and are never disclosed openly. The true expertise lies with those agencies although the academic contribution in Canada is getting much better, thanks to the efforts of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS: NB I am an associate of TSAS).

So if Public Safety is not the best office to produce this unique report, then who is? Not surprisingly, I would suggest that CSIS should do it since that is the premier organisation that knows what is happening in Canada. I could make an equally strong argument for the RCMP. Both agencies are best placed to speak to the issue and could take sensitive operational information, sanitise it, and give Canadians the optimal assessment of what the threat level is and where it is going. If neither is willing to do so, ask ITAC – the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre – which is housed in CSIS but acts as an independent body. Even CSE – Communications Security Establishment – could contribute. Any of these would be leagues ahead of what Public Safety puts out.

Public Safety Canada is indeed an odd beast. It oversees agencies that have their own legislation, their own mandate, their own internal policies and their own oversight mechanisms. None of them need ministerial guidance. They function very well and answer to the government without the insertion of the department.

Furthermore, I’d like to hear more from the Director of CSIS, the Commissioner of the RCMP and the Chief of CSE and less from the Minister, and I encourage these officials to be more open with Canadians. In this light it is a fair question to ask whether we need Public Safety Canada at all. If this suggestion doesn’t slam the door permanently for me at 269 Laurier Ave. in Ottawa I suppose nothing will.

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. He will give a public talk on his book An End to the War on Terrorism at the Shenkman Centre on May 27.

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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