Updated: Feb 1, 2022
It is not news that Canada’s intelligence agencies are not nearly as well known as their international counterparts. Thanks in part to Hollywood, and to longer and better-known histories, the CIA and FBI, as well as MI5 and MI6, are no strangers to most people. Heck, almost everybody has heard of the KGB – although perhaps fewer of its post-Soviet successor, the FSB.
Opinion polls in Canada demonstrate that our citizens are woefully ill-informed not only on what these agencies are mandated/legislated to do on our behalf, but even on their very existence. In a 2017 EKOS survey, just three per cent of respondents correctly named the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) as the government agency responsible for intercepting and analyzing foreign communications and helping protect the government’s computer networks. CSIS – the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – is better recognized, but it, too, suffers from a lack of understanding.
What Are We Missing?
In truth, the public lack of insight would not matter so much if the government – in effect the client or customer for intelligence – were switched on. After all, intelligence is produced for a reason: to provide early warning of events or developments, to aid in policy creation, and, in the direst of circumstances, to give decision makers the crucial data required to operate effectively in a crisis.
Alas, the situation in Canada is not ideal. It was long my experience at both CSE and CSIS that governments of various political stripes did not pay enough heed to what their intelligence services were telling them. No, intelligence is not, and should not be, the only source of data that goes into decision making, but it is important and should have some say. The appreciation of, and trust in, intelligence varied widely: on occasion it was ignored because it was “inconvenient.”
Where's the Interference?
The most egregious instance of governments ignoring the findings of their domestic and international spies must be on the China front. CSIS and others have been saying for decades that not only is the PRC not our “friend,” but that the nation has been interfering in Canadian affairs for a very long time. Whether that interference is the acquisition (i.e., theft) of Canadian knowledge and/or technology or the harassment of Canadians who hold views antithetical to China’s system of governance – here I would underscore those who have shone some much-needed light on China’s human rights violations against the Uyghurs and Tibetans and who have been threatened for these efforts – it has been shoved aside, usually with the excuse that economic considerations prevail. CSIS directors have even been chastised publicly (and even called on to resign) for issuing such warnings.
We are witnessing something similar on the counterterrorism front. That aspect of national security and public safety has justifiably centred on Islamist terrorism since 9/11 with good reason. In my years at CSIS, together with our RCMP colleagues, we foiled four major terrorist plots put together by jihadis. Another half dozen or so succeeded. That, combined with the tendency of Canadian terrorists to kill and maim abroad (Algeria 2013, Iraq 2013, Bangladesh 2016, …), translated into an operational and investigative priority for security intelligence and law enforcement organs.
The Canadian Divide
And yet the alleged “rise” of the far right in Canada seems to be dictating the agenda for counterterrorism efforts. Please do not assume I am dismissing this very real threat: we have had attacks in Canada (Quebec City 2017) and our Western allies are also faced with this scourge. But, kilo for kilo around the world, Islamist terrorists are still responsible for well over 95 per cent of all attacks today and it beggars belief to even propose that much has changed of late, including here in Canada.
Political correctness and woke culture, however, have led many to abandon and, indeed, condemn the correct use of terms such as “Islamist terrorism,” labeling such as “Islamophobic,” despite their longstanding acceptance both in the security and academic worlds. It should come as a surprise to no one that public and government unease over these phrases has a knock-on effect on the women and men responsible for doing their utmost to see that these actors do not move on to the killing and maiming of innocent Canadians. While I would not want to suggest that investigations are not carried out because of this sentiment, it is nonetheless most likely having an impact on operational decision making.
Where are we, then, as of early 2022? Russia is apparently trying to decide whether to invade Ukraine and is infiltrating the computer systems of governments opposed to its aggression (including Canada’s). China continues to harass anyone critical of its system of governance, including Canadians, and is still stealing our economic secrets. Terrorism is not on the wane anywhere – yes, it is worse in Africa (Nigeria, Somalia, DRC, Sahel, Mozambique) and parts of Asia (Pakistan, Iraq-Syria) more so than in the West – but still requires the financial and human resources to thwart.
What's Our Next Challenge?
In sum, this means that Canada’s security intelligence agencies are busier than ever. The world since 9/11 may have determined that terrorism was the No. 1 threat to be assessed and thwarted, but the truth is that the old standbys – foreign espionage and foreign interference – never disappeared from the agenda. All these require resources, both in terms of money and people. Considering the financial constraints tied to deficits incurred because of COVID-19, it is not certain that these resources will be made available – or are even feasible without adding even more debt to the country.
Intelligence agencies are held to the highest scrutiny, as they should be. When you grant extraordinary powers to these organizations – the intercept of private communications under warrant in domestic cases, surveillance, sharing data with local and international partners, etc. – they must be held accountable. No self-respecting democracy would demand less.
But when trust is at a low, whether among the public, or, a far worse scenario, among government clients who benefit from the information shared by their spies, we all suffer. No one wants to work in an environment where their very duties are seen as suspect.
Canada, and by extension Canadians, need to decide just how important intelligence is. They need to listen to the advice and counsel provided by intelligence professionals who, like them, want what is best for our nation. CSE, CSIS, the RCMP and other law enforcement organizations are indeed “standing on guard for thee.” It is time they were recognized for it.
Phil Gurski worked for CSE & CSIS over a 32-year span. His latest book is The Peaceable Kingdom: A history of terrorism in Canada from Confederation to the present.