Why Intelligence Sources Must Be Protected

Intelligence agencies work hard to get the best information possible for their clients and would appreciate having their sources not outed

This piece first appeared in the Epoch Times Canada on September 28, 2023.

I will never forget my introduction to the world of intelligence.

I was all of 22 years old, a recent grad with a master’s degree from Western University, and beginning my first real full-time job. I had moved to Ottawa for the second time in two years to start work at what I thought was the Department of National Defence (that is what I had been told). After earlier filling in a long form and having all my friends and references interviewed, I assume, to vet my suitability for the job, I found myself sitting in front of a very imposing man who was there to “indoctrinate” me.

I will call him Joe.

After an hour or so during which I was told that in fact I had not been hired by National Defence but rather by an organization I had never heard of—Communications Security Establishment (CSE)—I was brought into the world of signals intelligence (SIGINT), a world I had no idea existed. I was given a cursory overview of what my job entailed and why it was of paramount importance that I not discuss any of this with anyone not possessing what was called a “need to know.”

I was asked if I understood all what had been said and then issued a warning: If I chose to disclose what I now knew to anyone who did not possess a similar security clearance and did not “need to know,” I would likely be sentenced to 14 years in jail for contravening the Official Secrets Act. Yikes! What had I signed up for? Nevertheless, I took that warning seriously—for 32 years.

Over the last week or so it seems clear that Justin Trudeau did not receive a similar briefing from CSE (or CSIS for that matter), or simply does not care or think it applies to him. He has publicly stated that his government has intelligence pointing to the involvement of Indian security agencies in the gangland-style murder of a Sikh activist/extremist in Surrey on June 18. The nature of that intelligence has not been entirely disclosed but the PM did say that some of it came from the so-called Five Eyes (an alliance that includes the United States, UK, Australia, and New Zealand, in addition to Canada).

And here is why that is very problematic.

Intelligence agencies, especially foreign ones, share sensitive data with their partners on the condition that it will not be divulged to those without the aforementioned need to know. Those who can see the material must have the requisite security clearance and promise not to give it out more widely. The PM clearly elected to ignore these basic rules. (So, should he lose his access?)

It gets worse. Canada is a net importer of intelligence in the Five Eyes in that we receive much more than we contribute. Trudeau’s actions could very easily lead one of our allies within the Five Eyes (it seems we are talking about the United States here) to ask whether it is safe to send more sensitive SIGINT to Canada. After all, if this piece of intel was compromised, could others be as well down the road? Canada would not be seen as a reliable partner that chooses not to afford the proper protection to information obtained by professional spies at great cost and effort. We would be the poorer for that should we be cut off. I am hearing rumours that our allies are already not so sure Canada is the worthwhile friend it once was.

Intelligence that comes from secret sources can easily disappear, seldom if ever to return (I experienced this during my career when politicians decided to blow the cover on our sources). This is the last thing these agencies want to have happen as it often takes great effort to find, manage, and produce from these sources.

Justin Trudeau undoubtedly has his reasons for telling Canadians and the world about the intelligence that links India to the killing of Mr. Nijjar. That intelligence may indeed be very accurate—a so-called smoking gun. But regardless of the reliability of the intelligence in question, the target—i.e., India—now knows it has had its communications breached. It will most likely take steps to fix those holes so that future intelligence cannot be collected. That would lead to a gap in our collective Five Eyes program.

All thanks to Justin Trudeau.

There is at least one other issue at play here. Intelligence is not evidence, at least not in Canada. It cannot be used in a court case should someone accused of involvement in Mr. Nijjar’s murder come to trial. Why, then, make a public pronouncement in the first place?

Not everyone thinks intelligence is important. I beg to differ. In any case, the PM has made the work of our spies, and those of our close allies, much harder.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.