Transatlantic Briefing No. 11-06

Canada and the Intelligence-gathering Burden: Should Ottawa Spy Abroad?

Following up from his claim last April that Canada is not shouldering a large enough share of the Western intelligence-gathering burden, former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove sparked debate on Canada’s role in foreign espionage earlier this month after proposing the country establish its own foreign spy agency.  Speaking at a conference of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies (CASIS), Sir Richard asserted that a separate foreign intelligence body would enable Ottawa to carve-out its own unique role in Western intelligence activities.  He added that Canada’s foreign policy identity confers certain advantages over many of its Western counterparts in the gathering of intelligence.  Like Australia with its specialisation in Asia-Pacific intelligence activities, he suggested, Canada could develop a niche in the Western intelligence partnership through the creation of a small, effective agency. 

Also at the conference, revelations about the scope of current Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) field investigations in several foreign countries came to light.  The CSIS Director, Jim Judd, made public the agency’s assistance in the evacuation of Canadian citizens from Lebanon, its participation in a mission to free a Canadian hostage in Iraq, and its support provided to the Canadian military operation in Afghanistan.
These proposals and revelations spurred controversy because, unlike several of its Western intelligence partners, Canada has stayed away from the business of spying in other countries.  Whilst the CSIS Act does not place geographic limits on intelligence-gathering, the CSIS mandate limits the collection of foreign intelligence to investigating the activities of foreign states, individuals or groups within Canada that may pose threats to the country’s security.  The recent operations CSIS acknowledges executing in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan are unprecedented for an agency with a foreign presence hitherto limited to liaison information-sharing on matters relating to domestic security intelligence.

Given the transnational nature of many current security threats, a foreign agency could provide a Canadian niche in the growing need for global counter-terrorist co-operation.  CSIS and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have gained considerable experience since the 1960s in carrying out activities beyond the traditional inter-state espionage and counter-espionage operations of the Cold War.  Canada’s constitutionally-enshrined civil liberties, its policy of Official Multiculturalism dating back to 1971, and its proximity to the United States have exposed the intelligence and law enforcement apparatus to the unique challenges of countering the activities of a multiplicity of movements and organisations operating within pluralistic democratic societies.

Nevertheless, despite its experience in monitoring the activities of a wide array of groups and individuals, it is arguable whether a foreign agency commensurate with the country’s size could contribute much in the way of ‘value-added’ material to the Western intelligence-sharing relationship.  There are many similarities between Canada and Australia, however, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) is not an appropriate model for Canada.  Unlike Australia, Canada is ‘a regional power without a region’ given its geographic position in North America.  Beyond its vital bilateral relationship with the U.S. – indeed, in many ways because of it – Canada pursues a global foreign policy and therefore does not have a region of its own in which to target its intelligence-gathering.  Foreign government-supported espionage and other threatening activities carried out in Canada have their origins in many regions of the world.  Reid Morden, who served as CSIS Director from 1987 to 1991, recently wrote that Ottawa’s contributions to foreign intelligence-gathering would likely be modest because of these geopolitical realities.

Efforts to counter the threats ‘homegrown’ terrorist groups pose are likely to remain a key preoccupation for CSIS and the RCMP following the arrests of 17 individuals alleged to have plotted terrorist attacks on domestic targets last summer.  As University of Toronto intelligence expert Wesley Wark wrote following the arrests, such groups and individuals do not need foreign direction, financing, or training to wreak havoc on a society when communication via the Internet and access to harmful materials, such as ammonium nitrate, allow cells to plot with ease.

The new Conservative government has made public that the Ministry of Public Safety is studying whether to expand the CSIS mandate to permit it to carry out foreign espionage operations or to create a separate foreign agency.  Organisational self-interest appears to be prompting CSIS to adapt to the new set of circumstances in which the agency finds itself by lobbying for a foreign intelligence role.  At the CASIS conference Judd argued for a CSIS foreign mandate, arguing that national frontiers are largely irrelevant to the threats that the agency is currently monitoring.

Weighing heavily on the minds of government planners studying this question is likely to be fears of a repeat of the inter-agency rivalry that has long plagued relations between the RCMP and CSIS.  The tension between the two organisations dates back to the establishment of CSIS in 1984.  After uncovering illegal investigative methods employed by the RCMP Security Service, hitherto Canada’s national security intelligence unit, two federal commissions recommended the government create a civilian intelligence-gathering capacity separate from the RCMP’s law enforcement powers.  The relationship between the RCMP and CSIS has since faced bouts of in-fighting, from the investigation into the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight out of Canadian airports to the recent information-sharing troubles in a case involving the rendition of a Canadian citizen to Syria.  In an age when the lines between domestic and foreign threats are often blurred, a similar resource drain from CSIS to any new foreign espionage agency may prompt another round of turf wars, this time between domestic and foreign intelligence agencies.     
The debate on foreign intelligence capability comes at a time when the country’s national security agency and the federal police force find themselves under intense scrutiny over their conduct on the above-mentioned cases.  In the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin deported from the U.S. to Syria in September, 2002 it became known during a recent judicial inquiry that the RCMP transmitted erroneous information about Arar’s alleged terrorist ties to American authorities.  Testifying before a parliamentary committee earlier this month, CSIS claimed it was never notified of the RCMP’s mistake. Once in Syrian custody, Arar was tortured and detained for almost a year without being charged.  The second case involves the mishandling of the investigation into the Air India bombing, the most egregious terrorist act in the country’s history.  After an investigation spanning two decades – Canada’s longest and most expensive – two of the alleged perpetrators were acquitted in a trial last year.  Making good on an election promise, the Harper government set up a commission to probe the details of the case.  
These cases may lead to a diminishment of public support for a spy presence abroad.  Many parliamentarians and opinion-makers are likely to view such operations in the international arena as detrimental to the country’s putative image as an honest broker and a helpful fixer.  In the meantime, CSIS operations in foreign countries are likely to continue on an ad hoc basis.          

Kristian A. Kennedy
Department of International Relations
London School of Economics & Political Science

The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute.



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