Ottawa’s Foreign Interference Bill a Welcome First Step, but Questions Remain

In an effort to be seen to do something about foreign interference, the Canadian government announces a ‘foreign agent registry’. Now what?

This piece first appeared in The Epoch Times Canada on May 7, 2024.

Does the Canadian government finally “get” intelligence?

Wait, let me rephrase that. The federal government has been “getting” intelligence, thanks to the efforts of agencies such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and others, for decades. It is just that it does not “get” what intelligence is, what its strengths are, how or whether to use it, or even whether to trust it.

Do you “get” what I mean?

The recent government announcement that new legislation will amend the Canadian Criminal Code to make foreign interference an offence, finally create a foreign agent registry, and make changes to how CSIS collects and shares information is both a good news and a puzzling story.

On the plus side, it appears, and I stress appears, that the government, in the wake of the embarrassing disclosures on how it did not nothing to deal with foreign interference and influence in at least the last two federal elections (by China and others), is finally taking action. Some would argue the non-friendly horse bolted from the electoral barn decades ago, but let’s stay positive and say it is a start. Even if the need for the aforementioned registry was suggested, and agreed to, at least 12 months ago.

On the not-so clear side, we do not have a real definition, as far as I know, of what “foreign interference” is. Are there not legitimate things outside states do that are not illegal in nature? Who makes that distinction? Who goes on the registry, on what basis, and what are the avenues for dispute?

More importantly, why does CSIS need to make changes when it comes to collection? It already does that fairly well to my mind (biases aside). The problem was never with the collection—it was with the reception, or lack thereof, by the government. Furthermore, what can the non-informed government bureaucracy tell a professional intelligence service to help it do its job? What’s next, a bill to tell doctors how to practise their trade?

Furthermore, will the CSIS mandate change? Will it be allowed to collect information to an evidentiary standard? Will it be used in court? What happens to the relationship with the Mounties (always a tricky affair due to the differences between intelligence and evidence in Canada)? Will CSIS intelligence officers hence become law enforcement agents? If so, why have a separate security service in the first place? Why not just re-fold it in to the RCMP whence it arose in 1984?

There is, however, always room for improvement on how and where to spread intelligence. I have long argued for a greater sharing regime with those who have a “need to know” and the requisite security clearance. This can be done without compromising sources and methods, as long as those on the receiving end don’t resort to rejecting the intelligence when told the origin of that data cannot be disclosed.

And yet this all strikes me as way for the current government to avoid real responsibility. The Hogue interim report, unlike the previous Johnston whitewash, was damning in that it demonstrated clearly a group of officials, up to the prime minister himself, who could not be bothered to read intelligence, covered up that fact, then blamed the messenger (CSIS) rather than their own incompetence for the lack of action. Why would this new bill alter any of this inadequacy?

Most importantly, will any of this serve to raise Canadians’ trust in this government?  Foot-dragging, finger-pointing, and throwing others under the bus seem to have been the most common go-to actions of the government over the past few years. Does the proposed legislation represent one more attempt to deflect responsibility to the security services and allow the government to say that nothing can be done (arrests, prosecutions, etc.) because CSIS did not deliver?

Our intelligence professionals are already overstretched and dealing with a smaller workforce and morale issues (some of which are the agency’s own fault but others came from a government which likes to level accusations of “systemic racism” at everyone, including CSIS). Giving it more to do without more resources makes failure, not success, more likely.

I welcome any government that at last wakes up and smells the foreign interference coffee. But pardon me if I wait to see how this coffee is brewed and consumed before I pass judgment.

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.