Look, I get it. The intelligence world is a murky one. All that secrecy, and “need to know” stuff gets in the way of anyone having a full understanding of what these agencies do. Hollywood doesn’t help (hint: James Bond is a FICTIONAL character!) Nor does the tired old line “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you!”
Despite the curtain shielding the wizards of spydom, there are those who are privy to how the machine works – to some extent. Of course those on the inside know the recipe (and I counted myself among that crowd for 32 years in Canada, with both Communications Security Establishment – CSE- and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – CSIS) but are sworn not to divulge the details to anyone who doesn’t have a secret decoder ring.
But there are also those on the outside who get the requisite security clearance/briefings to allow them both to receive intelligence and to have a better idea how the whole thing hangs together. That group includes review bodies such as NSIRA (our National Security Intelligence Review Agency), senior government officials who got our products (our ‘customers’), and, one would presume, the Prime Minister and his National Security and Intelligence Advisor (NSIA). There are even Websites with reliable information on mandates and yearly threat assessments that the average Canadian can look into.
It appears that not everyone is paying attention.
The recently concluded $19 million inquiry into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act last February to deal with the ‘Freedom Convoy’ belies a shocking ignorance of what function CSIS, primarily, has in our fair land. That the PM and NSIA are all but clueless should raise some eyebrows and lead to the inevitable question: how can two highly placed officials NOT know?
This lack of knowledge manifested itself on several occasions. During her testimony NSIA Jody Thomas expressed the belief that while foreign interference is indeed a threat to national security it does not fall under the remit of CSIS. Huh? I know that legislation is a challenge to read at the best of times and that the CSIS Act does not make riveting fare, but section 2 b) of that Act says that one of the four national security threats which falls to CSIS to monitor and investigate is “foreign influenced activities within or relating to Canada that are detrimental to the interests of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person”. And it is on page ONE of the document! Surely the NSIA could have found the time to peruse the highlights of what Canada’s top spy agency does, no?
Not to be outdone, our PM, Justin Trudeau, told the inquiry in September that “CSIS has been challenged in recent years by the threat of domestic terrorism, which it was not designed to address…CSIS is limited in its ability to conduct operations on Canadian soil or against Canadians.” Wrong, again. While ‘domestic terrorism’ is an American term that defies clear meaning, it probably refers to far right terrorism, an ill CSIS has repeatedly investigated going back to the 1990s. And the crazy notion that CSIS has issues with carrying out ops on our soil is also a doozie of inaccuracy: it has been doing so since 1984 (and its predecessor, the RCMP Security Service, did likewise for decades before that). How can our fearless leader be so out of the loop on something so fundamental?
What should Canadians make of this blatant lack of knowledge? A couple of things I think. Senior leaders have little to no idea of what intelligence is and have no interest in creating an intelligence culture (unlike our allies). They see intelligence as irrelevant or inconvenient, especially when it goes against their preconceived notions or already decided upon moves (such as the use of the Emergencies Act). They also don’t seem to care that they have made grade school errors in public when it comes to their intelligence ‘intelligence’.
The worst part of all this is the effect on morale at CSIS (already very low in recent years). Having the PM and NSIA be so embarrassingly unaware of what you can and can’t do, then have them brush aside your analysis and assessments must make some wonder why they bother. This will all make the atmosphere at CSIS even more challenging.
My offer to the PM and NSIA. I am happy to brief you on our fine intelligence agencies and the work they do. I await your call.