In Defence of Canada’s Security and Intelligence Landscape

By Carter Brundage, B.Sc. Candidate in International Development at the University of British Columbia

In the wake of the Ottawa Parliment events and the new CSIS bill, CBC’s Brian Stewart wrote an opinion piece for CBC that called on Parliament to divide CSIS into two separate agencies. Separating CSIS into two separate domestic and foreign agencies has been debated both academically and politically for some years now. In the 2006 election the Conservatives promised to create a dedicated foreign intelligence agency. However, the Conservatives ultimately decided this process would be too costly and cumbersome. Stewart’s piece aims to renew this debate, and argues CSIS has a number of inherent issues that could be solved by dividing their power.

Stewart begins his criticisms by arguing Canadian troops have suffered from dangerously poor intelligence in military operations such as Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Libya. All of these cases, however, were multilateral missions where the Canadian military operated as part of a UN or NATO force. Stewart acknowledges that in these operations Canada has relied upon intelligence sharing with allies such as the US or UK but does not bother point out any drawbacks to this arrangement that may outweigh its practical benefits. Besides which, the Canada has dedicated military intelligence capabilities, namely the Chief of Defence Intelligence and the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command. While Canadian defence intelligence has been criticized in the past, the creation and bolstering of these agencies signal the government’s commitment to improving military intelligence without a civilian foreign agency. While CSIS has a secondary mandate to inform the Department of National Defence of intelligence that could engage Canadian Forces, their primary mandate remains the security of Canadians who are located domestically.

That being said, the Department of National Defence works closely, and shares its Minister, with the Canadian signals intelligence (SIGINT) agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), which a mandate to gather foreign intelligence. As such, Stewart’s argument that  Canada is the only G7 nation without a foreign intelligence agency lacks credibility. Canada does indeed have two separated intelligence agencies. CSIS remains Canada’s domestically focused security intelligence agency, concerned with issues that threaten the security of Canada, and its citizens currently within our national borders. While CSE is focused on electronic communications, and does not undertake activities such as cultivating human sources, its operations are still externally-oriented and mandated to gather intelligence related to broader Canadian foreign policy objectives. Stewart considers CSIS to be a hybrid agency because post 9/11 legislative loopholes allow it’s agents report on foreign intelligence they encounter while on operations abroad. However, this legislation does not permit CSIS agents or operations to operate expressly for the purpose of gathering foreign intelligence while in foreign countries.

Finally Stewart argues that foreign and domestic intelligence operations require different types of oversight. Accordingly, he takes the position that CSIS, and its foreign intelligence operations should not be accountable to the ministry of Public Safety when CSE answers to the Minister of National Defence. While Stewart is correct, the fact remains that  CSE and CSIS already have their own separate accountability structures in terms of legislation, ministerial portfolios, and dedicated oversight bodies. Following this logic, until CSIS loses its primary mandate of security intelligence its oversight body should remain concerned with implications of conducting intelligence operations within Canada and/or against Canadians. This means it is appropriate for the Service to be responsible to the Minister of Public Safety. CSE, who requires warrants intercept communications that both originate and end in Canada, should continue to be responsible to the Minister of Defence, considering Canada’s interests abroad are much more relevant to this portfolio.

Stewart’s criticisms of the current Canadian intelligence landscape ultimately represent a gross mistrust of our intelligence agencies effectiveness and their primary purposes. However, this is not the aspect of the article that warrants true criticism. What it is more concerning, is how Stewart has used Canada’s recent security concerns to launch a campaign for a foreign intelligence agency. While the recent attacks on Canadian soldiers are likely rooted in international issues, they ultimately fall under a domestic security portfolio. Thus they are the intelligence responsibility of our domestic agency: CSIS.

While Stewart’s criticisms fail to convey it, I believe his true point is this: we must be sure that CSIS remains focused on it’s domestic responsibilities, and is not over run by trying to also engage in foreign intelligence that is collected abroad. Stewart believes we can solve this by creating a dedicated foreign intelligence agency that would alleviate any distractions from CSIS. Lastly he believes the new CSIS act, which promotes overseas operations, will lead to CSIS being increasingly burdened by foreign distractions.

These concerns are not unreasonable, but, as I’ve established, the very points Stewart used to make his case are actually the solutions to these problems. The focus for CSIS is still domestic and still concerned with national security; the amendments to the  amendments to the CSIS Act will only increase it’s ability to investigate and share information on Canadians who are abroad. Bill C-44 does not change CSIS’s mandate to become a foreign intelligence agency and the institutions to which the Service is accountable are still concerned with the domestic implications of its activities. Assistant Director Michael Peirce recently eluded to how this functions when he testified at the Canadian Senate. CSIS has a list of objectives given by the federal Government the salience of which range from those on which the Service is conducting operations, to those it does not even report on. There is nothing to indicate at this time that furthering Canadian foreign policy interests is one of these priorities. Until such time, I believe the current Canadian security intelligence landscape, including its agencies, oversight bodies, responsible Ministers and new legislation are appropriately organized to protect Canadians.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License Photo by Pierre Gazzola
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