What role for Canadian intelligence during the COVID-19 crisis?

We see our intelligence sector as there to protect us from threats like terrorism and foreign espionage – what about pandemics?

This contribution was published on The Hill Times on March 30, 2020

OTTAWA — I don’t know where most Canadians get their impressions on intelligence from but I can guess. Bond, James Bond. Jason Bourne. Homeland. All fictional sources.

The underlying problem is that those who work in intelligence are the worst at letting us know what they do and how they do it. We all understand why, I’d like to think, we do not get a lot from those on the inside. Those who deal with sensitive information derived from sensitive (or secret) sources simply cannot be as open as Canadians would like them to be. There is nothing more sacrosanct – and critical to success – than sources and methods and spies guard those to the utmost degree.

What we do know about what these agencies do can be derived from legislation, the ways in which a democracy establishes what is legitimate, what is required, and what are the limits on powers. For instance, CSIS is mandated to advise the government on the following threats, as outlined in the CSIS Act:  espionage or sabotage; foreign influenced activities that are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person; acts of serious violence against persons or property for the purpose of achieving a political, religious or ideological objective; and acts that could lead to the destruction or overthrow by violence of, the constitutionally established system of government in Canada.

Yes, there is a role for our spies in these times. COVID-19 is not the only threat we are faced with. Let’s hope they can continue to do their work and keep us safe.

That is a wide-ranging mandate that seems to cover what we would probably think spies should do: stop terrorism, foreign espionage and foreign interference. And, based on my three-decades at CSIS and CSE, I think they do a good job of that (yes, I am biased but I also have an insider perspective on this).

Read also: No, COVID-19 is not an ‘intelligence failure’

So what happens in the current COVID-19 crisis?

It does not seem, at least on the surface, that threats of this kind fall under any of the above-noted categories. And yet there is no question that the virus pandemic does constitute a national security threat, perhaps one we have never seen in this country in a long, long, time. What, then, if anything should our security intelligence organisations do to help ensure that the government, and by extension Canadians, have the best information/intelligence possible in order to make the best decisions possible?

I can see several areas where there is indeed a role for CSE and CSIS. The former has already warned Canadians, especially those working on responses to COVID-19, to lock down their data because sophisticated hackers are out to “steal ongoing key research toward a vaccine.” The Canada Centre for Cyber Security, housed within CSE, has also warned that hackers, spammers and fraudsters are counting on concerns about the pandemic to induce people to click on unsolicited emails containing computer viruses (these are particularly potent these days, because social-distancing measures mean more people are working from their homes, where their data can be less protected compared to their offices).

CSE also has a foreign intelligence (FI) mandate and that can be used to collect data on what is happening outside of Canada as it relates to COVID-19 (full disclosure: I worked in FI at CSE from 1983 to 2001). The government could learn from what other countries are doing or not doing. In a perfect world all nations would share their data: alas the world is not perfect and that is why we need spies to gather information for us.

Yes there is a role for our spies in these times. COVID-19 is not the only threat we are faced with. Let’s hope they can continue to do their work and keep us safe.

As for CSIS the terrorism and foreign espionage/interference threats are still with us. Terrorists could take advantage of what they may perceive as our redirected attention to plan attacks: foreign states have already been detected spreading disinformation. CSIS can find out what these actors are doing and advise appropriately.

The challenge is that, much like the rest of the country, CSE and CSIS employees are encouraged to self-isolate to lower the incidence of the spread of COVID-19 (I have spoken to friends with both agencies who have confirmed that many are being asked to stay home). Clearly, spies cannot ‘work from home’ given the nature of their jobs and the classification of the data they collect. I suppose they will do the best they can under the circumstances.

For their part, US intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus while President Trump and lawmakers played down the threat. This is unfortunately not a surprise for an administration which has regularly undermined the messaging from the men and women that work in American national security.

So yes there is a role for our spies in these times. COVID-19 is not the only threat we are faced with. Let’s hope they can continue to do their work and keep us safe.

CSIS is mandated to advise the government on the following threats, as outlined in the CSIS Act: espionage or sabotage; foreign-influenced activities that are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person; acts of serious violence against persons or property for the purpose of achieving a political, religious, or ideological objective; and acts that could lead to the destruction or overthrow by violence of, the constitutionally established system of Government in Canada.

Phil Gurski
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