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How much do we really know about the Canadian intelligence community?

By: | August 16, 2016

The Trudeau government is set to review the activities of Canada’s spy agencies at a time when it appears Bill C-51 has empowered many of the more than 20 agencies and departments with surveilling powers to violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Victoria H. F. Scott
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"The only things Canadians know less about than their own intelligence agencies are perhaps the various bodies tasked with overseeing those intelligence agencies." Illustration by Victoria H. F. Scott.

Last year American whistle-blower Edward Snowden proclaimed that Canadian intelligence agencies have the “weakest oversight” in the Western world and compared the Canadian government’s Bill C-51 to George W. Bush’s post-9-11 U.S. Patriot Act.

Canada became a surveillance state under the Stephen Harper Conservatives. In 2014, for example, it came to light that the Government Operations Centre was monitoring residents of Newfoundland and Labrador, including Indigenous Peoples, residents of the Island’s west coast who opposed fracking, and fishermen who were protesting shrimp quotas. This ongoing problem is further complicated by multiple transnational intelligence sharing agreements, in place since World War II, that remain largely unknown to the general public.

Indeed, the rise of the surveillance state is a global phenomenon that cannot be separated from the rise of the internet. But in Canada, because of the lack of any credible oversight, it has played out in a very specific way. This has everything to do with what the Canadian public knows—and more importantly, does not know—about Canadian intelligence agencies.

Canada’s new and highly invasive so-called anti-terror legislation came into force last year with the support of then-Opposition Leader Justin Trudeau and the Liberal caucus. The Trudeau Liberals knew that in order to win the election they would need to undo—or at least promise to undo—much of the damage done by their predecessors. They would have to address the alienation felt by Canadians from having a government that used national security as an excuse to trade away its citizens’ freedom and civil liberties.

Unfortunately, they have yet to repeal or even reform Bill C-51, and recent terrorist attacks in Europe, the U.S, and here at home in Canada have provided the perfect backdrop against which to further delay the process. On August 10, for example Aaron Driver, a 24-year-old Canadian citizen who was allegedly plotting a terrorist attack in the southern Ontario town of Strathroy, died in a confrontation with police who were following up on a tip from the FBI.

 Recent terrorist attacks in Europe, the U.S, and here at home in Canada have provided the perfect backdrop against which to further delay the process [of reforming Bill C-51].

There should be an inquiry into the events that led to Driver’s death. In essence he was “engaged and killed” for an action he had not yet carried out. Moreover, it appears the young man was under close surveillance by at least two different countries, making it difficult to imagine that authorities could not see it coming. However, putting aside those important questions for the moment, one thing is clear: the event gave Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale justification for the continued delay of the Liberals’ election promise to reform C-51.

This kind of political maneuvering is not unique to Canada. Governments around the world will keep on trying to further expand the powers of their intelligence agencies until citizens get informed about the extent of the problem and take back control.

Understanding the way the Canadian intelligence community works, and the degree to which it collaborates with other international intelligence communities, is important — not only because the institutions that comprise the Canadian intelligence community are funded by Canadian taxes, but because, more crucially, if we do not understand how they work we cannot hold the government accountable for their actions or policies at home and abroad.

And herein lies the problem: The Canadian public knows very little about the Canadian intelligence community, let alone its dependence on American intelligence or its relations with the global intelligence community.

As institutions like CSIS can appreciate more than the Canadian public, Canadians cannot support or protest against actions or events about which they have not been informed. And there is a lot we have not been informed about. For example, according to at least three different articles published recently, there are around 20 different agencies that have national security responsibilities in Canada. 

As University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach wrote in his article “Review and Oversight of Intelligence in Canada: Expanding Accountability Gaps” (in the new book Global Intelligence Oversight), this is referred to as the “whole-of-government” approach. It sounds very twenty-first century, but the problem is that absolutely no one, not even the experts—and perhaps not even the government itself—can list all of those agencies, which in turn makes it impossible for the Canadian public to hold them accountable.

Who’s who in Canada’s intelligence community?

Mapping the issue is helpful. Different agencies report to different ministries. The RCMP and CSIS, for example, report to the Minister of Public Safety, while The Canadian Security Establishment (CSE) reports to the Minister of National Defence. Broadly speaking, the agencies are divided into civilian and military, but there is a lot of overlap.

Military agencies are sometimes overlooked because not very many Canadians even know that the Canadian military has its own intelligence system. The organization that centralizes intelligence for the Canadian Armed Forces is called Canadian Forces Intelligence Command (CFINTCOM). Its invisibility is interesting because, as Ottawa blogger Mark Collins has pointed out, the Canadian military’s defense intelligence system is considerable: “Last year, it produced more than 5,000 reports, which it shared not only with the top brass but with government departments.”

The CFINTCOM alone has five sub units: the Canadian Forces Joint Imagery Centre (CFJIC), the Canadian Forces National Counter-Intelligence Unit (CFNCIU), the Joint Meteorological Centre (JMC), Mapping and Charting Establishment (MCE), and the Joint Task Force X (JTF-X). As mentioned, the distinction between civilian and military agencies is arguably questionable as logically and logistically they share information all the time, blurring their respective missions and databases.

For example, the Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSET), established in 2002, is made up of special inter-departmental counter-terrorism units that operate under Public Safety Canada. It is very unlikely that they have no contact with the Canadian military. Moreover, Canada is a small country and in the course of an individual’s professional life they may work for two or more agencies (see the career trajectory of Leonard N. Giles, for example).

But back to the question of numbers — or to be more precise, how difficult it is to establish the exact number. A recent article in the Toronto Star mentioned four intelligence agencies listed in a government document with the fourth name blacked out (why would the government black out the name of a security agency?). However, the six security agencies that most people may have heard of include the RCMP, and then, under the umbrella of the Department of National Defense, the CSE, and the lesser known Intelligence Branch.

The latter is the main intelligence service of the Canadian Forces, which is concerned primarily with vetting personnel and is associated with The Canadian Forces School of Military Intelligence (CFSMI) in Kingston. There is also the aforementioned CSIS, and finally, the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA). One does not normally think of a border agency as an intelligence agency but collecting information is a by-product of their operations.

Even more surprising, the list mentioned above also included Citizenship and Immigration Canada. That brings the number up to seven, which already seems like a lot for a country with only 34 million people. The U.S., for example, has 17 different intelligence agencies for a population of 322 million.

In addition to the aforementioned agencies, there are at least two groups occupied with psychology which could also arguably be added. The Canadian Forces has a Psychological operations (PSYOPS) unit, and then there is the Extremism and Terrorism section of the Canadian Psychology Association. PSYOPS are the people who specialize in low and high grade propaganda, delivered individually and industrially. They are kind of like “applied” intelligence, we could say, insofar as they use intelligence not to make arrests or win wars, but rather to win hearts and minds. The exact connections between PSYOPS and the CPA are unknown — however, if you read the mission of the Extremism and Terrorism section it is clear that they could also be considered part of the Canadian intelligence community.

That brings the grand total up to nine, or 10 if you count INSET (mentioned above), with some rather large question marks. It is often said that quantity is easier to establish than quality, but in this case that is not true — and we have not even touched on the question of “maritime sovereignty”.

The status of the Extremism and Terrorism working group of the Canadian Psychological Association is interesting because it raises the issue of the relationship between academia and intelligence in Canada (not to mention medicine and intelligence; but I don’t want to get into that here—though that too is an incredibly important but under-discussed issue). The relationship between academia and the intelligence community is a subject that has received a little bit of attention in the U.S., notably from Loch K. Johnson and David Gibbs, but absolutely none whatsoever in Canada (with the exception of a handful of articles written by author and journalist Andrew Mitrovica). It is an issue which deserves immediate and serious attention in my view, especially in light of the global degradation of public education and academic freedom after 9/11.

Scholarship and scholars are, at least in theory, concerned with the creation and dissemination of new knowledge for the public good, globally. One of the fundamental conditions for the production of knowledge is academic freedom; in other words, the freedom to discuss and debate ideas vigorously and openly. In contrast to scholars, spies are tasked with keeping secrets and engaging in subterfuge, deception, and interference, sometimes on a massive scale. Scholars seek the truth; spies hide the truth.

Ideally, the university is a place for human development and the expansion of the human spirit. However, the presence of intelligence agencies and their employees covertly transform the sacred intellectual space of the university into a machine for surveillance and control. Arguably, the university has aided and abetted—indeed made possible—the rise of the surveillance state and can therefore be considered a kind of societal or institutional panopticon itself.

Though not many academics are aware, there is actually an association of scholars who work on intelligence issues in Canada The Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies (CASIS-ACERS). Notably, their position on spies in academia is either non-existent or very difficult to find. There is no mention, for example, about this urgent issue in what can loosely be described as their mission statement.

A Short History of Canadian Espionage

To understand the contemporary culture of spying in Canada, it is helpful to consider its beginnings.

Spying in the Great White North emerged in response to the rebellions of the Canadas, which briefly established a year-long Republic (“The Republic of Canada”) between 1837 and 1838. In the following decades colonial rule was re-imposed, and in 1864 the Colonial Canadian government set up two secret police forces and the first formal intelligence service.

Several different forces were founded at the turn of the century, eventually merging together to become the RCMP in 1920. CSIS was established in 1984 after the McDonald Commission of 1981 revealed that the RCMP had been engaged in a dirty tricks campaign against the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) in the ‘70s (they actually burned down a barn that belonged to an FLQ’s member’s mother). The idea was to separate the policing arm from the intelligence-gathering arm, with the hopes of controlling the criminality of the organization.

In the wake of revelations connected to kidnapping and torture of Maher Arar though, and the policing scandals associated with the protests against G-8, and G-20 in Toronto in 2010, it appears that historic effort has been a historic failure.

 The only things Canadians know less about than their own intelligence agencies are perhaps the various bodies tasked with overseeing those intelligence agencies.

Most Canadians are familiar with the RCMP, but not many know what the CSE is or what they do. Interestingly, founded in 1946, the CSE had roots in the Canadian academy as it was originally the communications branch of the National Research Council (CBNRC). In 1974 its cover was blown by a CBC documentary and subsequently was moved to the Department of National Defense in 1975.

The CSE is responsible for protecting the Canadian government’s electronic information and digital networks — what is usually referred to as ‘signals intelligence’ or SIGNINT. You’ve likely never heard of them before because they have managed, up until quite recently, to keep their noses very clean. In February of this year, however, they came to the attention of the Canadian public when the CSE was caught breaking privacy laws by improperly sharing Canadian information among the Five Eyes.

Whose information, exactly how much of it was shared, and with whom it was shared is still unknown. The question has not yet been answered for some reason—not by the government, and not by the press—despite a strongly worded editorial in the Toronto Star and a recent plea for a Canadian-Edward Snowden type whistle-blower. CBC reported last January that Minister of Defense Harjit Sajjan “could not specify what sort of metadata had been shared and said officials could not review the data to determine how many people might have been impacted without violating privacy laws.”

The Five Eyes refers to a signals sharing agreement established in 1941 between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, who in the late ‘60s established a surveillance program called ECHELON (surprisingly not an acronym). Edward Snowden described the Five Eyes as “a supra-national intelligence organization that doesnt answer to the laws of its own countries.

If one of the Five Eyes countries shares your personal information with another country (say, the UK), it’s not clear whether the government receiving the information can go ahead and share your information with other countries they have signals intelligence agreements with, such as the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre (EU INTCEN), for example.

Where does all this intelligence sharing begin and end, globally-speaking? Is anyone keeping track? Shouldn’t there be someone keeping track, internationally? (If you are interested in this important question a law prof at the University of Ottawa has wrote a terrific article about it in 2009 which you can read here.)

Which brings us to the timely issue of national oversight, as there’s a plan afoot in Canada to create an all-party committee of parliamentarians chaired by Ottawa Liberal MP David McGuinty to keep an eye on the country’s “fast-expanding national security establishment.”

Apparently it will arrive here sometime this summer.

Which is good—though I will believe it when I see it—because the only things Canadians know less about than their own intelligence agencies are perhaps the various bodies tasked with overseeing those intelligence agencies.

Each agency has some kind of unit responsible for oversight. The Department of National Defense and the Canadian Forces have an ombudsman. The RCMP is monitored by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC), while CSIS is tracked by the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC). The CSE has the CSE Commissioner, who supposedly provides some kind of external assessment. Considering the importance of the internet to our lives now, the fact that there is only one man in charge of checking up on the CSE is alarming, to say the least. In contrast, SIRC reports directly to the Government of Canada rather than any one minister. Chaired by various corrupt individuals during the Harper era, it lacks funding and any real authority.

One useful article written by Mitrovica on the subject was aptly titled, “What Happens When Our Spies Break the Law? Nothing Apparently.” One example is CSIS’s “diffuse and disrupt” program, which has existed since at least 2006, but there is very little information about it in the public domain. We do not know what kind of budget it has, or who it is being used against. What if the very institutions that are entrusted with protecting the rights of Canadian citizens are secretly violating them? Without credible oversight for the intelligence community in Canada there is no way of knowing.

Beginning to take stock of Canadian intelligence agencies in this way (and I have not even addressed the special forces and liaisons with other intelligence communities that come in to play when planning for large international events) confirms Snowden’s dramatic assessment and demonstrates that there is a lot we still don’t know. Indeed, it raises more questions than answers: Why don’t we hear more about these agencies? How can we learn more? And, ultimately, are any of these agencies holding or sharing our information? How can we find out? If we have a “whole-of-government” approach to intelligence, shouldn’t we also have a “whole-of-government” approach to intelligence review and oversight?

There are Canadian journalists on the beat, and even some academics who are writing about these issues, but we clearly need more. Canadian citizens can and should request their files from CSIS, the CSE, and any other relevant institution. If that fails, there is always Freedom of Information (FoI) and Access to Information requests (ATIP).

 What if the very institutions that are entrusted with protecting the rights of Canadian citizens are secretly violating them?

None of these methods are very efficient but that issue is connected to the central problem of transparency in general in Canadian politics at the moment. Why is there so much secrecy about the secret services in Canada? Why do we need so many intelligence agencies anyway? What are Canadian intelligence agencies hiding exactly? As Pierre Trudeau noted in 1975, “democratic progress requires the ready availability of true and complete information. In this way people can objectively evaluate the government’s policies. To act otherwise is to give way to despotic secrecy.”

The expansion of the Canadian secret services was a by-product of 9/11. In the aftermath, right wing forces in the West and around the world saw an opportunity to expand and entrench their power, and they took it, militarizing every aspect of everyday life, in every way they could imagine.

The fallout for western democracies, and especially Canada, has been grave.

In December 2013 Snowden wrote an open letter to Brazil in which he stated that the U.S. government’s National Security Agency’s surveillance programs “were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.”

The rise of the surveillance state is a global phenomenon. Countries all over the world—the UK, France, Germany, Malaysia, to name a few—have all recently passed legislation increasing the surveillance powers of their respective intelligence agencies.

In Canada Bill C-51 is a symptom of a larger and historic problem. Governments will always try to expand the powers of their intelligence agencies. It is up to Canadian citizens to be vigilant, and to get informed, not just about C-51, but about the Canadian intelligence community as a whole.

Victoria H. F. Scott is a philosophically inclined contemporary art historian with broad and diverse interests. Currently she is editing an anthology titled ‘Art, Global Maoism, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution’ with Jacopo Galimberti and Noemi de Haro-García, which will be published by Manchester University Press in 2017.

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