Canada Begins to Consider Entry into Foreign Espionage

Senior members of Canada’s intelligence community are publicly advocating that the country consider entering an area that it has hitherto reserved for other countries – offshore espionage.

In an article published this month in Canada’s most prominent national newspaper, three retired government officials who have held key intelligence positions said the Canadian government should explore the possibility of creating an agency specifically like the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or Britain’s MI6.

“Is it time for Canada to develop the ability to gather foreign intelligence through human intelligence sources overseas? …It may be time.” The three former officials wrote in an opinion piece published June 11 in the Globe and Mail.

Collecting foreign intelligence has never been a priority for Canada, which is geographically secure with vast oceans to the east and west and friendly neighbors to the south. Even the job of rooting out foreign spies in Canada was for a long time left to the flamboyant and dazzling Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) – better known internationally for their dressy red tops and Stetson hats.

The RCMP stepped down from this counterintelligence role in 1984, when Canada created the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). But even that agency was largely limited to a counterintelligence role, with a legislative mandate to operate “within Canada.

While CSIS does have some personnel stationed overseas, much of the information Canada gathers about the intentions of other governments comes from public sources, “signals intelligence” (SIGINT) or electronic surveillance (ELINT), and reports from its diplomatic missions.

Its primary means of obtaining so-called “human intelligence” (HUMINT)-that is, through spies, not electronic surveillance-is through its work in the ” Five Eyes” (FIVE EYES). “The Five Eyes Alliance is a cooperative intelligence-sharing alliance whose other members include the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

“We contribute to what other countries do, but we’ve never felt the need to do it ourselves,” Peter Jones, one of the authors of the June 11 opinion piece, explained in an interview with Voice of America.

“Canada’s allies occasionally complain that we don’t even have a (foreign intelligence) agency, so we’re not contributing enough. I don’t think that’s the case.” Jones said.

But, he added, “I can imagine” that Canada building up a foreign intelligence collection capability would only improve relations with its allies.

Jones is a former senior policy analyst with the Security and Intelligence Secretariat of the Canadian Privy Council Office, the high-level body that advises the federal cabinet. His commentary is co-authored by Alan R. Jones, a retired Canadian Security Intelligence Service officer who served in a number of operational planning and policy positions, and Laurie Storsater, who held security and intelligence-related positions in a number of government agencies.

Graham Plaster, Washington-based CEO of Intelligence Community Inc. a national security affairs consulting firm, agreed that the United States would very likely be pleased to see Canada develop a more solid intelligence-gathering capability.

“When our allies invest resources in developing national security affairs capabilities, the U.S. benefits as well,” Plaster told Voice of America. “A new human intelligence organization in Canada, training and coordinating efforts alongside their U.S. counterparts, would be strategically beneficial to both countries.”

But Jones cautioned that there is a limit to what Canada might be willing to help do for its ally.

“I do foresee that if some allies expect to be able to use Canada’s (foreign intelligence) agencies to help them reach areas or individuals that they can’t currently reach themselves, that could be problematic,” Jones said.

“While it is true that there has been such cooperation, and it has been productive, how and under what circumstances should we put our collection capabilities in that area at their service if some allies have different policies than we do in a particular area? This is something that Canada needs to consider carefully.” Jones explained.

If Canada decides to develop a human intelligence capability, one of the key decisions it will need to make is whether to expand the mandate of the existing Canadian Security Intelligence Service or create an entirely new agency.

Phil Gurski, a former CSIS official, told VOA that he supports expanding the existing agency because it “took years to get up and running” after it was created in 1984.

But others have suggested that Canada should follow the lead of its intelligence-sharing allies, which essentially split intelligence collection at home and abroad between different agencies.

Jones said he is not yet sure which model Canada should adopt.

“I think we’ll have to look at it a little bit more,” he said. “My gut feeling is that we should probably look at creating a new agency. I’m wary of merging the mandates of different intelligence agencies that are all doing different things.”

“Assuming the U.S., Australia, the U.K. and other countries didn’t start creating their intelligence agencies until today, then maybe they would create an agency that combines different functions. But that’s not the traditional approach historically,” he added.

The opinion piece, co-authored by Jones and two of his colleagues, does not touch on a key question – if Canada engages in offshore espionage, who are the targets of their spying?

Jones acknowledges that Canada does not have a dedicated geographic advantage over its ally Australia. Australia has made Asia its main area of intelligence operations, sharing intelligence from the region with the “Five Eyes Coalition.”

However, when asked what a young Canadian looking for a career in the intelligence community should learn, Jones said, “I would learn Chinese, Russian or Arabic. No matter which government is in power, there are parts of the world that will always be of lasting interest to Canada.”