When Canada formed a civilian intelligence agency in the mid-1980s, it sparked fears that its members would run amok with unchecked powers.
As it celebrates its 30th anniversary, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is being dogged by similar concerns — but this time it’s in the context of its rapidly expanding overseas missions and “we go where the threat is” mantra.
CSIS was created strictly as a domestic security intelligence agency, but some industry observers say it has been taking on operations more akin to the activities of a foreign intelligence service.
They are worried about the lack of oversight related to its overseas missions and propose that Canada should follow the lead of its G-7 partners by creating a separate, dedicated foreign intelligence agency, such as the United States’ CIA or Britain’s MI6.
“What we are doing is pretending that the skill set for domestic and foreign intelligence are the same … and offering nothing in the way of appropriate internal and external accountability,” said Wesley Wark, a national security expert and visiting research professor at the University of Ottawa.
“CSIS may, operationally, be able to perform both missions, but we are taking a big gamble.”
In a blog post last week, Daniel Livermore, a senior fellow with the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs, wrote that putting domestic and foreign operations into one agency is known as the “KGB model, typically characterized by arbitrary acts and abuse of authority.”
“If the Canadian government now believes that working covertly abroad is essential to Canadian security, we should be debating not an extension of the CSIS mandate but how to separate the foreign intelligence function from CSIS’s domestic jurisdiction.”
CSIS director Michel Coulombe alluded to the spy agency’s shifting priorities and expanding “global footprint” in a speech to retired employees earlier this summer.
“In this new environment, we go where the threat is. We do more foreign operations and joint operations than ever before, and these are more complex operations than ever before,” he said, according to a copy of his speech obtained by Postmedia News through access-to-information laws.
Asked to elaborate on his remarks, CSIS spokeswoman Tahera Mufti said there is no question that the agency’s foreign role has expanded, but she insisted that its operations are consistent with its mandate to collect information pertaining to threats to Canada.
Alan Jones, a retired assistant director at CSIS, agreed. “You cannot defend Canada in isolation,” he said. “Sometimes CSIS operators must have an on-the-ground presence to complete an intelligence collection task.”
What agents are not in the business of doing is collecting information about the activities of other states — that’s the role of a foreign intelligence agency, he said. And there is currently no appetite to turn CSIS into such an agency.
“Detractors argue CSIS doesn’t know the difference, but in fact they do, and know it better than the detractors because they live it every day,” he said.
But Wark says CSIS has, in essence, become a “dual-purpose” agency operating at home and abroad. Since 9/11, CSIS has expanded its overseas operations “well beyond” the original functions performed by liaison officers posted at Canadian embassies.
Proposed amendments to the CSIS Act in Bill C-44 serve to cement that hybrid role, he said. One part of the bill would allow a judge to issue a warrant authorizing CSIS to carry out investigations abroad “without regard to any other law, including that of any foreign state.”
Wark said he supports transferring CSIS’ foreign operations to a new agency. If we don’t, “we put ourselves offside with our major allies … all of whom have separate foreign intelligence and domestic security intelligence functions,” he said.
Craig Forcese, a terrorism expert and law professor at the University of Ottawa, said he’s not convinced a separate agency is needed given that it would fill the “narrowest of niches” not currently occupied by CSIS, the Communications Security Establishment (which intercepts foreign electronic communications) and intelligence arms of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
That said, Forcese agrees that the Canadian security sector needs to “go back to the drawing board” and reconceive how it conducts its affairs and how it is held accountable. “I think we have been making it up as we go in many areas of national security law and governance. That is not an ideal situation,” he said.
The body tasked with reviewing CSIS’ activities, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, lacks resources and staffing to keep pace with CSIS activities, Forcese said. As a consequence, SIRC is stuck having to perform “partial audits.”
That’s not to say SIRC (Security Intelligence Review Committee) has not raised concerns about CSIS’ overseas missions.
In its most recent annual report, SIRC reported that the agency was not taking proper steps to validate the intelligence it was collecting abroad. “SIRC was concerned that the service was relying heavily on techniques that may fall short of confirming the value and veracity of the information,” the report said.
The same report also raised a number of concerns about CSIS agents’ use of firearms abroad. The arming of CSIS employees first began in 2002 in Afghanistan and has since expanded to other high-risk or dangerous environments. However, SIRC’s review found that protocols are not always followed and that CSIS’ firearms policy does not adequately address liability issues or what sort of legal action would be taken if an employee acted negligently.
CSIS also did not adequately consult the public safety minister on the use of firearms outside of Afghanistan, the review body found.