Do we need a Canadian CIA? (external - login to view)
By J. Michael Cole, Ottawa Citizen November 21, 2011
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Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) director Richard Fadden's concerns about Chinese espionage have been ignored.
Photograph by: Chris Wattie, Reuters, Ottawa Citizen
At a time when Ottawa is instructing federal agencies to trim their budgets, the Conservative government is reportedly contemplating expanding the Canadian Security Intelligence Service's mandate to allow it to engage in intelligence collection abroad, a measure that would signify additional costs and whose returns are by no means certain.
At the heart of the problem lies Section 16 of the CSIS Act, which contains a clause - "within Canada" - that has long cast a shadow on the agency's ability to operate abroad. The government wants to do away with that constraint, arguing that new imperatives, such as international terrorism and Chinese espionage, require that CSIS have the same powers to spy on people abroad as it does within Canada.
Now, it is an ill-kept secret that, thanks to built-in flexibility in the mandate, CSIS is already conducting operations abroad, sometimes in some of the world's most dangerous places. What a revamped mandate would signify is that CSIS would be able to engage in more such activities, or feel less like a criminal when it does so. Arguably, such intensification in espionage abroad would imply additional costs related to training and deployment, among others, which goes counter to the government's budget cuts plan. What this would create, in fact, is justification for CSIS to ask for more money.
CSIS director Richard Fadden recently asked employees at the agency to come up with proposals on how to cut the agency's budget. One idea that is making the rounds, but that for political reasons is unlikely to be adopted, is cancelling language training in the official languages, which many see as an impractical leftover from the Pierre Trudeau era. (It is estimated that language training costs about $50,000 per intelligence officer.)
Budgetary gerrymandering aside, the case can be made that CSIS should indeed be allowed to expand its operations abroad, especially when we weigh this against the much costlier alternative of creating a brand new foreign intelligence agency, or a
"Canadian CIA." However, such an endeavour will not be without difficulties, and the benefits would be contingent on politicians' willingness to use it responsibly.
One current shortcoming is the fact that Canada's intelligence officers are very young, and many do not have enough experience and maturity to operate in complex - and oftentimes dangerous - environments abroad. Since mass hiring began following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., officers with as little as five years' experience in the field have been deployed to a number of countries, including war zones. Others have risen in the ranks to become department heads, causing serious trust issues among senior management, who now require innumerable approvals up and down the chain of command before anything as much as a coffee can be ordered.
It will therefore be a while before CSIS intelligence officers are experienced and sagacious enough to engage in foreign intelligence collection with confidence, especially in the difficult environments in which we would expect them to be deployed. That, or if we're not willing to wait this long, Canadians will have to accept the increased likelihood of diplomatic incidents, if not casualties, abroad.
Another problem is that more intelligence will not necessarily translate into a more enlightened government. Nothing illustrates this better than Ottawa's approach to China, which ostensibly would be one of the principal targets of CSIS should it be permitted to increase intelligence activity abroad. (As former director Jim Judd testified in 2007, China is the service's most formidable adversary and consumes almost half of CSIS's counter-intelligence apparatus.)
Conservatives and Liberals alike have a long tradition of ignoring the espionage threat from China. Back in the 1990s, "Sidewinder," a report on Chinese spying in whose drafting CSIS participated, was ignobly discarded for making Ottawa look bad. Fadden himself ran into trouble for daring to point out that China posed a serious espionage threat to Canada, while an indiscreet MP who risked compromising state secrets by flirting with a Chinese reporter from Xinhua News Agency earlier this year received the full backing of the Harper government amid calls for his dismissal.
We are now told that Canada and China are to increase collaboration on science and technology through the Framework Agreement for the International Science and Technology Partnership Program, and Chinese investment in almost every sector of the Canadian economy, from natural resources to telecommunications, continues at unprecedented levels. Such developments would not be as alarming if China were a normal country, or showing signs that it is liberalizing. That it has moved in the opposite direction in recent years, becoming more rather than less repressive even as its economy modernizes, has indisputable implications for its activity abroad, including espionage on dissidents and the theft of various technologies.
A more proactive CSIS targeting of such activity would be a sensible response to the risks inherent to this budding relationship, but so far the Harper government has given us little reason to believe that more intelligence - even secrets stolen within China - would lead Ottawa to take the Chinese threat seriously and adopt the appropriate measures to address the problem.
Giving added powers to our spy agency, and providing it with more money during a period of belt-tightening, will only be justifiable if the government intends to use the additional intelligence generated as a result. If it doesn't do so and instead politicizes intelligence the way it has done on China, then surely Canadian taxpayers would rather that money be spent elsewhere.