After years of discussions and calls for action, it looks as if the Canadian government is finally getting serious about establishing meaningful Parliamentary oversight for its intelligence agencies. Canada is the laggard in this respect since its main allies (the so-called “5 Eyes” community – Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK are the other four) have long had structures in place whereby elected officials can see and discuss matters linked to intelligence.
The Liberal government has appointed MP David McGuinty to look into how to create this body and Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale has traveled to the UK to see how that country treats the issue. We should see some result or recommendation by the fall of 2016 and it appears that the government also intends to consult a variety of Canadians on the issue.
This is a good move and one that our intelligence agencies (primarily CSIS and CSE – full disclosure: I used to work for both) should embrace. Organisations that work in the shadows have nothing to fear from oversight since the most critical part of what they do – sources (where their information comes from) and methods (how they get that information) will in all likelihood never be on the table – and should not be disclosed to the public in any event. An agency that loses control over how it gathers intelligence loses effectiveness and credibility.
On the subject of credibility, this can only be enhanced with the public through the creation of a body of Parliamentarians that will have the necessary access and ask the necessary questions. Some may think that CSIS cares little about credibility – quite the contrary since having a solid reputation opens doors with partners, attracts top talent and encourages the public to trust and work with our spies when necessary.
And yet there is still something else that needs to happen. Our intelligence leaders and experts should have the freedom – or should be encouraged (I am not sure which applies here) – to have a regular conversation with Canadians on issues pertaining to national security. To date, the only time we hear from the CSIS Director or the CSE Chief is during infrequent Senate committees or even less frequent interviews. This is indeed unfortunate and should change.
Our intelligence agencies are staffed by very smart, passionate and dedicated people and the work they do – here and abroad – has had a significant impact on our safety and security. This success is rarely – if ever – paraded as it is only failure that seems to be placed at the feet of these organisations. An inaccurate picture of what CSIS and CSE do is thus created, and this is a disservice to the men and women who have committed much time and energy to their task.
We need to invite these agencies to participate in frequent open discussions on the threats we face as a nation and which they play a role in identifying and neutralising – terrorism, cyber attacks, espionage, etc. It is an understatement to acknowledge that CSIS and CSE have a lot of insight into these matters and much that can contribute to our common understanding of what is out there.
There are caveats or course. The aforementioned sources and methods cannot be made public. Ongoing investigations will also be off the table. The public, including journalists, must realise that some things need to remain secret.
In the absence of official input the resulting vacuum gets filled, and not always by the best people. Pseudo experts can dominate the media sphere and their poor grasp of what is happening detracts from the conversation. CSIS and CSE can help fill that information need. The days of “no comment” need to end.
Not all of this will be easy to accomplish. Decades of silence will be difficult to overcome and many people who work in these agencies either do not want to be publicly identified or cannot for operational reasons. Nevertheless, intelligence professionals in other countries have spoken freely, especially in the US, albeit usually anonymously and off the record. We have to give our experts a chance to share their experience and perspective.
We can do this and we should do this, carefully. The end result will be a better informed populace and, I believe, a newfound respect for what our spies do for us. We cannot allow allegations such as the Snowden revelations to be our only source of data on what is really happening in the intelligence world.