The first rule of spy club: you do not talk about spy club

Former CSIS Analyst Phil Gurski weighs in on why it makes sense for nations to share intelligence where and when they can.

It makes sense for nations to share intelligence where they can.

It should come as no surprise to any Canadian that what our intelligence agencies do on a daily basis is rarely, if ever, disclosed publicly. These are secret organisations after all and nothing is more sacred to the nation’s spies than the protection of their sources and methods. To cite the old WWII saw: “Loose lips sink ships”.

One aspect of the Canadian intelligence community that has been blurted out on many occasions is the fact that we belong to a rather exclusive spook club and have done so since the Second World War. It has the innocuous and somewhat scary title of the ‘5 Eyes’ and refers to the fact that a pact was agreed upon some 75 years ago by the leaders of the world’s five major anglophone countries to share intelligence. Those five were, and remain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

The amount of intelligence, both raw and finished, which is passed back and forth is beyond description. Suffice to say it is a lot, including some very, very sensitive data. How do I know this? Simple. I worked at CSE (Communications Security Establishment, our signals intelligence, or SIGINT, agency) from 1983 to 2001 and then at CSIS from 2001 until my retirement from the civil service in 2015. 32 years of exposure to some really cool stuff which, as the saying goes, I could tell you all about but then I’d have to kill you (just kidding!).

While Canada is a competent player in this alliance it is much smaller than two of the partners (the UK and US), marginally larger than a third (Australia) and heaps bigger than the fifth (New Zealand). Nevertheless we receive much more than we contribute. This is not a dig at our spies: it is simply a matter of fact.

Spy cabal

It is thus clear that holding membership in such a spy cabal is a privilege. Canadian foreign, security, defence and cyber policies and decisions derive much benefit from this arrangement and I am not certain that our actions would be, at least in theory, as good as they are in the absence of this club.

When I was in the ‘business’ there were always rumours of analogous agreements among other countries. They did not seem as important nor as massive as ours, of course, but they did tweak our curiosity. Information on the details was, surprise, surprise, hard to get.

Imagine my shock then to read in a recent edition of The Economist of the existence of the ‘Maximator’ agreement – named after a beer apparently – existing among Denmark, Germany and Sweden (the Netherlands and France joined later) since 1976! The sharing seemed to revolve around SIGINT collection and codebreaking: very similar to what the 5 Eyes also did. I do not have a good sense as to their level of finished assessments passed around, a big part of our anglophone club.

It takes a lot for an intelligence organisation to share with another. We are naturally skeptics at heart, trusting no one and bent on keeping our own secrets for our own advantages. Nevertheless, during the Cold War, a few Western nations saw enough benefit in collaboration to keep at bay the elephant in the room: the Soviet Union and its allies. I would guess that counter terrorism provides a similar rationale these days.

As an aside, CSIS has the ability to enter into a sharing relationship with any country outside the traditional 5 Eyes under Section 17 of the CSIS Act. In this post 9/11 world we have been forced to share intelligence with ‘partners’ who are ‘not like us’, sometimes with dire consequences (see the Iacobucci Commission‘s findings on dealing with Syria for example).

Those working in Canadian intelligence go to the office every day with one goal and one goal only in mind: to produce the best intelligence possible to further Canada’s interests and keep Canadians safe. Anyone who maintains we can do this in a vacuum without allies is dreaming in technicolour. We have been very fortunate to have good allies, both traditional and new. I hope this continues.

This contribution was published on The Hill Times on July 13, 2020

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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