Jul 08, 2019

What the annual CSIS report tells us about national security and public safety

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on July 1, 2019.

It should come as a surprise to no one in this country that the activities of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) are secret. After all, CSIS is a spy agency and all good such organisations do not tend to shout their methods and sources from the rooftops. There is nothing more important to those in intelligence than sources and methods and disclosing either puts you on a one-way road to failure.

Nevertheless, CSIS has been a little more forthcoming in recent years, a development I have long encouraged, both while I was an analyst there and since my retirement. There is a lot that the agency can tell Canadians without jeopardising the aforementioned sources and methods. Furthermore, if CSIS does not inform Canadians about the threats we face someone else will (nature abhors a vacuum so they say) and some of those someones will have little to no idea what they are talking about. In the interests of accuracy, then, it is best to hear from the true experts.

One vehicle that the Service does use to convey its concerns is its annual public report. The 2018 version just came out and it tells us quite a bit. For the purposes of a Hill Times column I will limit myself to what I think are the highlights, but please feel free to read the whole report. Here we go.

As Director Vigneault noted in his message at the start of the report, CSIS has witnessed a lot of changes since its creation almost 35 years ago. Born out of the RCMP Security Service it was still very much a Cold War agency where terrorism was a blip. That has changed, of course, but it is interesting to note that counter espionage and foreign interference, which once corralled the vast majority of investigative resources, never went away and are demanding more attention again. The challenge is how to distribute finite resources to meet multiple threats. Part of the solution is new powers through new legislation (such as the recently passed C-59), a necessity that worries some Canadians

Not surprisingly, terrorism leads off the section on national security threats and Islamist extremism (the term Public Safety is afraid to use) tops that list: that is as it should be. I was pleased to see the robust section on right-wing extremism although I would quibble with listing the 2018 van attack in Toronto as an example (and the use of the term ‘Daesh’ for Islamic State – another Public Safety demand I would wager) as we still know next to nothing about the perpetrator of that event.

The part on “Canadian extremist travelers” (I guess that is the term the GOC is using now) is well stated. As CSIS notes, “CSIS takes the threat posed by returning fighters very seriously. These people have not only shown the resolve to travel and join a terrorist group, they have often received training or gained operational experience while abroad.” We should take comfort in the next phrase: “CSIS and other Government of Canada departments and agencies are well organized as a community to manage the threat posed by returning fighters.” The debate on what to do with Canadians who turned their back on their country is far from resolved: thank God CSIS is watching these terrorists!

Under foreign espionage and interference it is worth pointing out that CSIS is part of a collective effort to safeguard our democratic institutions. With a federal election coming up I am happy to see CSIS state clearly that it will conduct “investigations against specific threat actors who are believed to be targeting Canada through clandestine or deceptive means, or via the involvement of a threat to a person.” It is not as if foreign meddling in elections is unknown (the 2016 US election is a great example).

When it comes to cyber and computer network attacks I would guess that most Canadians would think first of CSE – Communications Security Establishment (where I toiled from 1983 to 2000) – rather than CSIS. The Service does play a role, however, in carrying out investigations to uncover state actors and terrorists who engage in the so-called computer network operations or CNOs.

There is some material in the annual public report that I surmise is there merely to satisfy the Trudeau government’s template (e.g. gender-based analysis) and I suppose CSIS has to show it is meeting those requirements, although they have nothing to do with threats as far as I can see.

In the end the report sheds valuable light on what keeps the Director and his staff up at night. CSIS is far from perfect but it is an excellent, dedicated and professional security service. Canadians should be glad we have these people watching out for us.

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and worked at CSIS from 2001 to 2015.