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.
Photo bby jonathan mcintosh