Why former spies and diplomats must have freedom to speak

This post appeared in The Hill Times on August 5, 2019.

When you agree to work for an organisation that deals with classified information you are required to sign off on documents that say you will never disclose certain data to those who do not have the requisite security clearance and a ‘need to know’. This agreement is a basic requirement of joining up and there is no way around it.

In many ways it makes perfect sense. Those of us who worked in intelligence had access to very sensitive information, the unauthorised leaking of which could do a lot of damage. I am not trying to be dramatic here in a Jack Ryan or ‘loose lips sink ships’ way. What I mean is that if certain information gets out the person(s) under investigation may get wind of it and change their habits or ways of communicating, making it harder to monitor them. This is what we refer to as protecting sources and methods. And yes, it does matter.

This restriction does not expire once you leave the intelligence world. When you exit you are told that you must not share details that remain classified, even if your own Top Secret clearance has expired (as mine has). The need to maintain this secrecy is a lifetime one. It is for this reason, I imagine, that some people elect to have nothing to do with the world of secrets when they leave, preferring other pursuits (sigh! I wish at times I was like them!).

As is obvious to anyone reading this and other articles and those who have seen me in the media, I have chosen a different path. I have decided to remain engaged in the world of terrorism and intelligence, sharing my perspectives on what is happening now in both spheres. Contrary to what some may think, I do so not to see my name in print or my ugly mug/voice on TV/radio but rather because these fields still fascinate me and I am proud to have been chosen, and entrusted, to work in them. Furthermore I do think (hope?) that my perspectives can help my fellow Canadians understand what is happening and I do think that in the absence of credible voices who spent time ‘at the coalface’ we are left with many instances of know-nothings who at a minimum are useless but who can also do a lot of damage with their uninformed notions. So, yes, I do plan on keeping my hand and voice in this area for a while.

What is vitally important however, aside from the need that I do not spill sensitive material, is that I preserve my editorial independence. My views are my views and my views alone. I do not consult with any of my previous employers in the national security/public safety realms (CSIS, CSE, Public Safety Canada and the Anti-Terrorism Section of the Ontario Provincial Police). As it turns out I rarely have to say anything negative about some of them – well except Public Safety Canada for a variety of reasons – so I imagine they are not that concerned over what I have to offer.

I do believe it is important that those still in ‘the business’ not try to influence those of us on the outside. Alas, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) does not appear to agree with me. At least two former diplomats, both ex-ambassadors to the PRC, have been contacted by GAC and ‘lightly advised’ to be careful with what they say in public about the state of PRC-Canada relations. The two, David Mulroney and Guy St-Jacques, have told the media that GAC and even the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) have received messages in which they were asked “to avoid contradictory public messaging regarding China.” For the record both departments have denied that this is what really happened.

I am no China expert but I do follow events there and I do recognise Messrs. Mulroney and St-Jacques as men worth listening to given their experiences. They do have interesting thoughts to share and you don’t have to agree with them to have a look at what they have to offer. That GAC and PMO engaged in this kind of influence peddling is unconscionable. These men are not disclosing sensitive data: they are merely giving us their opinions.

Look, I know that relations between Canada and the PRC are in the pits and that the latter is holding innocent Canadians hostage in a tit-for-tat over the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei. And I know that our government is trying to find a solution to this impasse while still endeavouring to maintain relations with an important world power. But trying to stifle the voices of experienced Canadians who are critical over what China is trying to do sounds a lot like what China does to its own citizens, does it not?

I never ask CSIS for permission to say or write what I do on national security and public safety, even when I explicitly refer to my time there or say the odd negative thing about that particular organisation. Nor has CSIS ever told me what to say or not say. Yes, I have friends and contacts there still but I am not on the payroll. Are they ok with my public persona? I hope so but that approval is not relevant to what I want to contribute.

There are a lot of Canadians who served our nation well and who have valuable contributions to make to help our citizenry understand complex realities. They must have the freedom to do so without government or civil service busybodies trying to narrow what they do.

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and a former intelligence analyst at both CSIS and CSE.