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What do you mean Canada does not have a foreign intelligence service?

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on November 26, 2018.

We all know that many nations have a foreign intelligence service that sends spies here, there, and everywhere to collect the information its government tells it to in order to protect state interests. There is the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which has been featured in more novels and films than I can count. And, of course, there is the MI6—the British Secret Intelligence Service—made famous by Ian Fleming’s James Bond, who taught us all how to drink a martini (shaken, not stirred). And then we have the Canadian foreign intelligence service which is, uh, er, um.

The fact is we do not have a foreign intelligence service in our country, never have had one, and perhaps never will. The best-known spy agency is CSIS—the Canadian Security Intelligence Service where I worked for 15 years—but it is not a foreign service. It is a security service which means it focuses on threats to Canadian national security arising from menaces like terrorism and espionage. Foreign intelligence refers to the collection of information on the capabilities, intentions, and activities of foreign actors (states or individuals) and is used to help Canada understand what is happening on the world stage, what it means to us, and how we can make better decisions and policies based on that intelligence.

CSIS does have a foreign intelligence (also known as FI) role of sorts. In Sec. 16 of the CSIS Act it says: “the service may, in relation to the defence of Canada or the conduct of the international affairs of Canada, assist the minister of national defence or the minister of foreign affairs, within Canada, in the collection of information or intelligence.” So there you have it: CSIS collects foreign intelligence. But, did you notice the small indented clause towards the end—“within Canada”?  In other words, CSIS can be our eyes and ears on what Canada’s economic and political rivals are, provided that it collects what it can within national borders. What this means is that CSIS cannot send its people to act all James Bond-like outside the country (there is no such restriction on security intelligence which is covered off in Sec. 12 of the act).

Am I the only one who sees this as an obstacle? If the Canadian government wants to know what Lower Slobovia intends to do in upcoming trade negotiations with us, would it not make more sense to go to the capital city, Padunkshuk, to get that intelligence? I think it would, but CSIS is prevented from doing so by the “within Canada” clause. A recent Federal Court decision confirmed this restriction.

As a side note, the other, less understood, spy agency in town, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), can collect foreign signals intelligence (CSE does not run human sources or agents). That collection, unlike CSIS FI, is limited to targets outside Canada (confused yet?).

Why on earth would a state prohibit its premier intelligence agency from going abroad to collect the information needed to make better foreign policy decisions? Good question. When CSIS was created, way back in 1984 (for the record, I was at CSE at the time), the government was still trying to get over the misdeeds of the former RCMP security service and decided to create a separate, civilian security service. There was probably not a lot of patience for adding in powers and mandates that could have opened us up to further embarrassment or even danger should Canadian spies get caught recruiting the aides of Lower Slobbovian ministers in Padunkshuk. Hence, the insertion of “within Canada.”

Should this change? Should the CSIS Act be revised to remove “within Canada”?  Some would say yes, others no (the courts are clearly careful to limit what CSIS can do, based on the current version of the act). It is also probable that the creation of a completely new, independent truly foreign intelligence service would take a lot of money and a lot of time to become credible and effective.  I am not so sure that we want to go down that road.

Besides, thanks to our membership in the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing community (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S.) we get top-quality information from our allies: I can attest to that, based on what I saw when I was at both CSE and CSIS. However, as close as these anglo partners are, our foreign intelligence interests are not 100 per cent in sync. I mean, given the current occupant of the White House, can we really say that U.S. interests mesh with Canada’s?

It is thus unlikely that we will see a new foreign intelligence agency any time soon. Maybe that is what Canadians would prefer anyway. We are, after all, a shy, diffident people who would rather be neither shaken nor stirred.

Phil Gurski is the president and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. He worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Director of the National Security programme at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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