This piece appeared in The Hill Times on July 22, 2019.
As spy agencies go ours in Canada is not that different than others in the Western world. OK, CSIS does not have the sexiness of MI6’s James Bond and may not overthrow regimes like the CIA does but it does share many characteristics with its closest equivalents. It collects intelligence to advise governments. It tries its best to protect its sources and methods. It tends to operate in the shadows. And it does a poor job of explaining to Canadians why it does what it does. It is this latter trait that sometimes leads to problems.
The recent BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) allegations of CSIS spying on environmental protesters is an excellent case in point. According to the BCCLA, CSIS was monitoring the activities and peaceful protests of Indigenous groups and environmentalists who were opposed to the now-defunct Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project and sharing this information with the National Energy Board and petroleum industry companies. The fact that oversight committees have dismissed these allegations has not tempered the mock outrage that we are dealing with a ‘rogue’ spy service in our land. One intrepid reporter went so far as to write that “If you challenge authority, expect CSIS to spy on you.”
For those who are concerned that these reports are proof that we have a jack-booted security service in our midst, allow me to try to explain how the whole thing works. I was not involved in the investigations on threats to the natural resource sector but I can make an educated guess as to how this whole thing unfolded.
CSIS is legislatively mandated to investigate threats to the security of Canada, defined under section 2 of the CSIS Act, by the powers granted under section 12. One of these threats is politically-motivated violence. Is it possible that some of the opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline could have turned to violence? Absolutely, ergo CSIS did what we ask of it.
It appears that in the course of this legitimate investigation intelligence was gathered on groups that did not appear to be engaged in potentially violent actions (this is called ancillary collection and it happens all the time). Canadians may get antsy over having their name in a ‘CSIS database’ but such fears are unfounded. Such information is not used to further any action, although it can help to paint a more accurate picture of real threats and I imagine we want CSIS to do its job to the best of its abilities. If these groups eventually embrace violence CSIS would already have solid intelligence to proceed with an investigation into those actors, thus giving it a leg up on what it needed to understand.
As to the allegations that oil patch companies were given information, these too were twisted. CSIS does indeed provide security briefings to a whole host of audiences (for the record I was involved in such presentations to energy companies) but classified intelligence is only shared with those in government who hold the necessary security clearances, and these recipients are told not to disseminate it elsewhere: if they do they are cut off from getting any more intelligence. So no, CSIS did not share the names and addresses of protesters with the petroleum companies, which were merely given an overview of potential threats to their infrastructure.
There are other missing elements to this story. Canadians need to appreciate that CSIS acts as an ‘early warning system’ on threats to national security and public safety for all of us. It has a lower threshold of investigative power (reasonable grounds to suspect) than law enforcement does. It collects intelligence, not evidence, and does so to keep up on what may morph into real threats to Canada. Everything it did in looking into the Northern Gateway protest movement was not only allowed it was required.
What is lacking is a general understanding of all this and CSIS, I have to admit, is part of the problem here. As a spy agency its natural position to most things is ‘no comment’. A lack of information leads to a vacuum and we all know what nature thinks of vacuums. These security vacuums are filled, often by those with an agenda to fulfill, many of whom have a poor to non-existent grasp of national security and the role intelligence plays in safeguarding it. CSIS could do much more to be part of that conversation and I highly encourage it to do so.
In the end there is a lot of light but not a lot of heat around the BCCLA brouhaha. If CSIS and the government did a better job of engaging with Canadians the latter would see these issues as the non-stories they really are.
Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. He worked as a strategic analyst at CSIS for 15 years.