The recent terrorist attack in Ottawa which killed one Canadian soldier, and might have killed many more people, including parliamentarians, but for the heroics of one brave man, has forced Canada to rethink its intelligence posture. Several new ideas are on the table which are intended to improve the collection and analysis of intelligence relating to terrorist threats to Canadians.
One of the biggest agenda items is increasing the size and budget of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the country’s main security agency. Just two days before the homegrown jihadist Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot up the capital, CSIS informed the Canadian Senate that it simply lacked sufficient manpower and resources to properly track the eighty Islamic extremists in Canada whom CSIS assessed as serious terrorism risks. That seems likely to change now, and is in fact long overdue.
Among the changes to Canadian intelligence and security that are on the table include substantial revisions to CSIS and its mission set. The proposed Protection of Canadians From Terrorism Act includes provisions “to do physical surveillance, covert operations, and to intercept communications of foreign nationals, as well as Canadians, anywhere in the world.” Perhaps most importantly, the bill would convert CSIS into a bona fide foreign intelligence (FI) agency.
This would change Canada’s anomalous status as the only major Western democracy lacking any part of its government devoted to collecting human intelligence (HUMINT) abroad. Canada’s sole FI agency is Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), which is NSA’s close partner and a core member of the Anglosphere’s “Five Eyes” signals intelligence (SIGINT) alliance that dates to the Second World War. Implications of this new bill could be considerable from a privacy viewpoint since, no matter what Glenn Greenwald tells you, CSEC is expressly forbidden to spy on Canadians without court authorization, and this legislation may change that through a CSIS loophole.
Instead of that important discussion, I want to focus on the tabled proposal to transform CSIS into a real player in the global HUMINT game. Both Britain and Australia, whose intelligence models are very similar to Canada’s, have an FI HUMINT agency — SIS (popularly MI6) and ASIS, respectively — as well as domestic intelligence agencies, respectively the Security Service (popularly MI5) and ASIO, the latter being direct equivalents of CSIS.
Ottawa likes to claim that CSIS does FI, after a fashion, and in a very strict sense that’s true, as it does collect things that look like FI HUMINT, but it collects them inside Canada. Just as the FBI does in the United States, CSIS targets foreigners of possible intelligence interest who are in the country, some of whom do provide FI information of value. Additionally, CSIS has officers abroad, known as Security Liaison Officers (SLOs), attached to Canadian embassies abroad, but they’re not James Bonds running around; rather, as their title implies, their job is sharing intelligence with partner services. While CSIS sends officers on short-term trips abroad to conduct something like FI outside Canada, these operations are rare, closely supervised, and do not amount to a major capability.
After 9/11, Ottawa pondered creating a real overseas spy agency, like those in Britain and Australia, but ultimately demurred on grounds of cost, plus CSIS, seeking to preserve its empire, argued it could conduct enough FI to meet Canada’s needs. In the aftermath of the Ottawa attack, the issue has again arisen, and this time Canada may at last enter the elite HUMINT club alongside CIA and SIS.
However, several things should be kept in mind before Ottawa embarks on this course. Why CSIS itself was created in 1984 may illuminate some of the challenges ahead. The storied Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had long served as Canada’s domestic intelligence agency, but in the 1970s its elite Security Service, which handled matters of counterterrorism and counterintelligence, got itself into hot water over how it targeted Quebec separatists. Mirroring some of the tactics employed by Hoover’s FBI against American domestic troublemakers, the RCMP harassed separatists and, despite the vaguely comic-opera nature of some of these shenanigans (burning down a barn, for instance), civil libertarians were sufficiently distressed that the RCMP’s Security Service was disbanded and the cops got taken out of Canada’s spy game.
In its place was created CSIS, which is explicitly not a law enforcement agency, consisting solely of unarmed civilians who, Ottawa hoped, would eschew the rougher “cop mentality” that had been commonplace in the RCMP’s Security Service. In this, the Canadian government succeeded, and CSIS soon gained a reputation as an efficient and orderly service, albeit one a bit too small for the job it was given, not to mention quite tightly constrained by laws and oversight, another legacy of the RCMP’s mistakes.
Things got off to a bumpy start, and its less than glorious performance in the 1985 Air India bombing, a terrorist attack by Sikh extremists based in Canada that killed 329 people, 268 of them Canadian citizens, was a major black mark on CSIS, albeit one largely attributable to the growing pains of a spy service in its first year of life, when lines between CSIS and the RCMP remained fuzzy. In theory, RCMP is brought into cases when it appears someone being watched by CSIS for, say, espionage or terrorism, appears to have broken Canadian law (this relationship is much like that between the Security Service and Special Branch in Britain), and in general the day-to-day ties between the agencies are good.
Despite occasional errors — my favorite being the CSIS analyst in 1999 who left top secret materials in her car in Toronto while she was watching a hockey game, only to have them stolen by drug addicts — CSIS is a serious and professional security service. But becoming a proper HUMINT agency devoted to espionage abroad is another matter altogether. If Canada wishes to go down this bureaucratic road it must keep in mind that quality matters more than quantity most of the time in espionage, and establishing a first-rate service will take more time and money than you think.
Additionally, CSIS, being a domestic security agency, lacks the right skill set, especially the odd foreign languages and global savoir-faire, that any competent HUMINT agency needs to function properly in a dangerous world. Moreover, there will be mistakes and the Canadian public will learn things they may be disturbed to hear when foreign operations go wrong, as actuarially some will. The consequences will be more serious when you leave classified materials in your car in Karachi rather than Toronto.
Above all, it seems dubious to create a niche FI HUMINT capability inside an existing domestic intelligence agency, even a good one, since those skills are really quite different, as are the personality types, generally speaking. Just as the RCMP Security Service was a bad fit bureaucratically, as a bunch of semi-spooks among cops, leading to the embarrassing mistakes of the 1970s, a bunch of wannabe James Bonds nested inside CSIS seems destined to cause trouble in the long run.
If Canada is serious about generating a real FI HUMINT capability, it would be well served to establish a new agency, separate from CSIS. It will need help in doing this, since it will be starting from something like scratch, but small can be beautiful. Above all, do not seek mentoring and help from the CIA since, for all its espionage acumen, it is a gargantuan worldwide bureaucracy that bears no resemblance to what Canada will be doing. The British can help, as can the Australians, as both SIS and ASIS are quality services that know how to provide good HUMINT on a budget that the Americans would consider shoestring, mere beer money to Langley. If you want to get it right, place a call to Tel Aviv too, since nobody does small-is-beautiful in espionage like the Israelis. My two cents. Good luck to Canada’s spooks, it’s a tough job and a dangerous world out there.
 Those who like to quibble may note that New Zealand’s intelligence community exactly mirrors Canada’s, lacking an explicit FI HUMINT agency, but given that country’s tiny size I’m not counting it among “major western democracies” here.