While it is true that intelligence services have a murky reputation – all that cloak and dagger stuff – in reality what they do is not all that complicated. As to HOW they do it, well that is another matter. The most closely held secret within these organisations is what we call ‘sources and methods’, and these are critical to keep out of the public eye for, if disclosed, collection efforts are made that much more difficult.
But getting back to the what part, it is actually quite simple. Agencies such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) gather information (for that is ultimately what intelligence is), assess it for accuracy, corroborate it from other independent sources, summarise it in small snippets (because busy clients have neither the time nor interest in reading long documents) and disseminate it to senior government officials. Recipients may have more questions, or further requirements, and these are fed back into what is known as the ‘intelligence cycle’ which starts the whole ball rolling again.
Note that in Canada these agencies do not write policy, they do not make high level decisions and they do not tell the government what to do. Their role is purely an advisory one and, as with all advice, it can be taken, acted on, or ignored.
But what if that advice never gets to senior officials in the first place? Exhibit A: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent claim that he was not briefed on Chinese interference in the 2019 federal election (““I do not have any information, nor have I been briefed on any federal candidates receiving any money from China.”). If true, a very serious shortcoming in Canada’s intelligence circles.
Except that it may not be true.
In January of this year CSIS warned the PM that the PRC had targeted Canada in what is termed “foreign interference” (covered in Section 2b) of the CSIS Act), more specifically the funding at least eleven candidates in the aforementioned election. This is very serious as it suggests that a foreign state tried to sway our democratic process.
I have no idea if China did this – I no longer work for CSIS and if I did know my reply would be “neither confirm nor deny” – and I have no idea whether the PM was briefed or not. But that is not what is at stake here. What matters is that a significant intelligence assessment on an egregious example of foreign interference appears not to have made it to those who need to know. Was it stopped at a lower level? If so, by whom and why? Was it shown and dismissed? If so, why (acknowledging, as noted above, that there is no requirement to take and act on advice proffered)? Did the PM actually see it and put it aside?
CSIS is careful to provide the best intelligence advice it can and hopes that its products are at least read and considered. It does not make accusations of foreign interference lightly, not that this is the first time that China has fallen into this category. One would expect that the country’s premier spy agency assessment would have had an effect on decision makers.
That it may not have could have arisen from several factors, among which are Canada’s poor intelligence culture, the inconvenient nature of the message, gaps in communication/distribution networks, and fears that it could affect Canada-PRC economic relations. Whatever the reasons, that the PM apparently (?) was not apprised of an unwanted influence on our democratic election by a nation that is not Canada’s friend should raise questions, if not alarms.
Canada should not be so naive to believe that this kind of nefarious activity does not occur with shocking regularity here (and China is not the only culprit). We are in the crosshairs for our technology and know-how and our multicultural society is seen as a threat by some nations which brook no criticism of their actions. In this regard China has been particularly busy, harassing Canadians with ties to the Uyghur and Tibetan communities in our land. In other words, those who come here to get away from autocratic states are still at risk from those states (which may threaten family back home if the ‘dissidents’ do not end their ‘anti-China’ activities).
Whatever the case, foreign interference is real. Our spy service takes this threat seriously and is doing its utmost to uncover it and advise the government thereon. It is doing its part, even if others in the bureaucracy are not.
In the end, when CSIS comes a-calling it is best to open the door.