Canadian Intelligence: Do We Need Spies?

By Rob Denaburg, M.A. Candidate, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

In the world of spies and foreign intelligence agencies, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) are likely the first to come to mind.

What about Canada’s equivalent? Where are our foreign spies?

The answer is that Canada has never had a standalone agency for its foreign intelligence efforts, let alone one dedicated to clandestine human intelligence (HUMINT) collection abroad. Canadian clandestine agents have been sent overseas on occasion to collect information on potential threats to Canada, but this does not imply an established network of Canadian foreign spies. Instead, Canada chooses to collect and analyze foreign intelligence through other means.

Our strategies include non-covert diplomatic reporting and interview programs (debriefing travellers and Foreign Service agents), signals interception through the Communications Security Establishment of Canada (CSEC), as well as open-source intelligence gleaned from openly available information. This process is divided amongst a number of federal departments and agencies, and coordinated by DFATD.

Canada has been collecting foreign intelligence since 1940, according to Canadian intelligence expert Kurt Jensen. But despite the restructuring of foreign intelligence units after World War II, a dedicated foreign intelligence service never emerged. By 1951, official decisions had been made to have neither clandestine agents nor a foreign HUMINT agency akin to the CIA or SIS.

Despite these decisions, academics, military personnel, and political figures alike have continued to debate the need for a Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service (CFIS) and the use of clandestine agents abroad. These debates have re-emerged in the post-9/11 security context, and have been considered by the Canadian government on two more occasions (2002 and 2007), but ultimately abandoned due to the costs involved.

Was this the right decision?

The most pressing concern that proponents of a potential CFIS tout is the risk posed by a lack of intelligence about foreign threats. We cannot, however, ignore the fact that Canada does collect foreign intelligence despite the lack of a dedicated agency, and, critically, it also receives intelligence from its allies who face similar security threats.

To this, some might argue that without a CFIS and agents abroad, Canada’s reliance on its allies for foreign HUMINT could threaten the integrity of our foreign policy process. This assumes policy-makers rely primarily on allied intelligence, rather than using it to supplement foreign intelligence obtained by Canada.

Intelligence sharing is actually quite common. According to Jensen, roughly half of the intelligence reports produced by Western intelligence agencies are based on information collected by another country. Intelligence sharing, therefore, should be seen neither as a politicized process nor the result of a lack of our own capability, but rather as a reliable way to help allies address common threats.

In my opinion – shared by former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Director Reid Morden – it would appear that the costs required to centralize Canada’s foreign intelligence operations would be better spent on increasing the operational budgets of current foreign intelligence-gathering units.

But what about the question of foreign spies?

It has been suggested that Canada is an intelligence freeloader due to our lack of clandestine HUMINT networks. In response, we chose to appease our allies’ requests for foreign intelligence with improved non-covert measures, such as the Interview Program as early as 1953. The issue, however, is that if Canada was to deploy clandestine agents abroad, I believe that the financial and political costs would likely outweigh potential added contributions. It is even possible that Canada would be able to contribute less as a result.

Because Canada made the decision over fifty years ago not to have clandestine agents abroad, we have built our international reputation and partnerships, allowing us the access needed to pursue our non-covert HUMINT strategies. Engaging in covert HUMINT practices would lead to a loss of this trust – even worse if agents are caught in the act – which could jeopardize our current operations.

Canada would likely just be throwing a few more spies into the mix, duplicating efforts made by our allies, and potentially undermining decades of Canadian efforts – all at a great cost to taxpayers.

Finally, Canada’s signals intelligence is the most important element of our foreign intelligence activities. If contributing more to our intelligence sharing alliances is the goal, logic would follow that we should play to our strengths rather than duplicate efforts by trying to overhaul our entire system, or risk undermining our current capabilities in an attempt to improve a relationship that is essentially maximized.

While reasonable arguments can be made both for and against the creation of a CFIS and the addition of clandestine HUMINT collection, the existing network of foreign intelligence in Canada can address most of the country’s needs, and it would be more effective for Canada to fortify the current system than to completely overhaul it by creating a new agency and/or sending clandestine agents abroad.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Photo bby  jonathan mcintosh

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3 replies

  1. Rob,

    A few comments.

    Your article would benefit from offering some definitions and clarifications. First, what do you mean by “clandestine agent”? An agent, in HUMINT parlance and to simplify, is a human source that provides information. A handler, or case officer, recruits and manages human sources. You likely meant to use the latter term in lieu of “agent.” I will come back to the issue of terminology. Second, I would ask the same question for “foreign intelligence.” What does your definition include and omit (information on threats such as terrorism and espionage? political intelligence? economic intelligence?)? As an aside, while it is accurate that Canada does not have an SIS/ASIS-equivalent, contrary to what you say, it does have an agency that collects exclusively foreign intelligence, i.e. CSEC. Third and last, under what circumstances and how does DFATD coordinate the collection and analysis of foreign intelligence? Your article appears to imply that DFATD directs foreign intelligence collection efforts of other agencies and departments. Is that what you meant? And why is it important for your reader to know in the context of this article?

    One of your key arguments, quoted below, states:

    %%%%%
    “Canadian clandestine agents have been sent overseas on occasion to collect information on potential threats to Canada, but this does not imply an established network of Canadian foreign spies. Instead, Canada chooses to collect and analyze foreign intelligence through means other means.”
    %%%%%

    This argument is potentially misleading and inaccurate. It ties in to the importance of definitions. You use both the terms “agents” and “spies” in the same sentence. When examining the context, it makes sense that we should understand “clandestine agents” as “handlers”, and “foreign spies” as “agents.” Provided this is exact, it is implied that CSIS has conceivably terminated or turned over all of its human sources, which, as a result, means that the Canadian intelligence community relies exclusively on other sources of information.

    This is an implausible scenario. Of course, we cannot know with absolute certainty if CSIS currently runs or does not run an established network of human sources. However, I would evaluate as highly likely that it does because of the pervasiveness of threats such as terrorism and the added value of HUMINT in responding to such threats. From an operational standpoint, CSIS is, after all, first and foremost a HUMINT agency.

    As another aside, I recommend reading Robert Clark’s chapter on HUMINT in his recently-published book “Intelligence Collection.” It articulates the process of running human source operations. Great primer.

    Next, the following two arguments caught my eye because they are unsupported.

    %%%%%
    “Canada would likely just be throwing a few more spies into the mix, duplicating efforts made by our allies, and potentially undermining decades of Canadian efforts – all at a great cost to taxpayers.”
    %%%%%

    There are two separate arguments in this paragraph.

    The first argument is that Canadian human source operations duplicate efforts made by our allies. According to open-source reporting, the Canadian Forces and CSIS conducted HUMINT operations in Afghanistan. Was it a duplication of efforts? No, of course. Why? Because HUMINT operations likely targeted Canada’s area of operations, i.e. Kandahar, where information was needed the most on high-value targets, insurgent capabilities and intentions, threats to force protection, etc. In similar fashion, should we offload the responsibility to the USA or the UK if a Canadian citizen travels overseas to possibly plan a terrorist attack? Not if we have the capacity to do it ourselves, no. We cannot rely on our allies for everything. We have an obligation to ourselves and to our allies to foster security.

    The second argument is that Canadian human source operations would harm our international reputation and partnerships. It would, moreover, jeopardize our current operations. As a start, it would help if you elaborated on what operations are at risk of jeopardy and why. Furthermore, I believe human source operations do, on the contrary, improve our standing and our partnership. And that is because, as the CSIS website you quote in your article clearly indicates: “Our current priority, (…) is threats to the security of Canada (particularly terrorist threats).” Terrorist groups that target Canada likely wish to target other Western countries as well. This takes us back to doing our fair share. By doing our fair share, we are very likely improving our standing among other countries targeted by terrorism instead of free riding. In the end, it all depends on the scope of operations, and this is what you should have had harped on. If we include offensive espionage operations targeting states for political and economic intelligence in the mix (which I think is your main concern — again, this calls attention to the importance of defining terms such as “foreign intelligence”), then yes, there may be cause for concern. However, does the CSIS Act mandate the agency to conduct such activities overseas? Looking at Section 16, I would interpret this as a no.

    %%%%%
    “Finally, Canada’s signals intelligence is the most important element of our foreign intelligence activities.”
    %%%%%

    How did you come up with this conclusion? Moreover, what method do you use to rate the importance of intelligence disciplines? To be clear, I strongly believe that SIGINT is of critical importance. However, all intelligence disciplines have their benefits and drawbacks. Take terrorism again (I use terrorism as an example since this blog focuses on this issue). Some terrorist groups have been known to take operational security measures to reduce the risk of SIGINT agencies “listening in” on their conversations. How, then, do you find out about the capabilities, intentions, and activities of such groups? Infiltrating them with human sources is one way to get the information SIGINT can’t offer you. Oversea HUMINT operations will not always succeed, but it would be a mistake to completely push them aside.

    Overall, Rob, interesting piece. I would recommend reading more on this discipline to grasp how intelligence agencies can and do leverage it in the current security environment.

    I hope my comments helped. Good luck in your studies.

    – LL

  2. Hi LL,

    Thanks for your comments. While I will certainly get to them in due time, it’s currently just about the busiest time of the year for me. I need to concentrate on my assignments and projects right now, but I didn’t want you to think this went unnoticed. I also didn’t want to just quickly fire off a response that would likely be insufficient in terms of properly responding to a number of questions you’ve raised.

    Thanks again for your interest, and I’ll get back to you when I’ve got some free time. Hope that’s OK!

    – Rob

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