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Six Ways for Harper to Reclaim the National Security Agenda

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he is “very concerned” about revelations of Canadian spy activity targeting Brazil. So he should be. The operation by the Communications Security Establishment Canada, our electronic spy agency, looks to have been ill-advised and a waste of finite Canadian resources, unless the world has grown very much safer than we have been led to believe.

The Prime Minister’s state of concern masks a larger problem: that he and his government have lost their strategic grip on the national security agenda, a pretty damning state of affairs. It’s likely that Mr. Harper had no idea CSEC was targeting the Brazilian Department of Mines and Energy – a strange turn of events in an administration known for its iron-fisted control, but revealing of the fact that after years in government, it has drifted away from important legacy initiatives and its own policy ideas on national security.

Such an agenda would be largely budget-neutral and non-partisan, and would go a long way toward restoring political control over a burgeoning intelligence and security establishment as well as advancing Canadian public knowledge about some of what goes on in this secretive world so vital to our safety and security.

It’s time for the government to take control of this drifting ship of state, for its own sake and for the sake of Canadians. The Brazil spy story provides an opportunity well beyond the need to mend fences with an important trading partner.

Here are six suggestions for, as Winston Churchill might have said, “action this day” – or at least action whenever Parliament resumes:

1. Bring coherence and shape to Canada’s much-enlarged intelligence and security apparatus by issuing a serious and thoughtful national security strategy, as once promised. The last and only version of a Canadian national security strategy was issued by Paul Martin’s government in 2004, and now gathers dust on government shelves.

2. Introduce legislation to create a committee of parliamentarians with security vetting and security-cleared staff, which would be responsible for issuing reports on matters of current intelligence and security policy and operations. Justice Minister Peter MacKay sat on a parliamentary study group from both houses that approved the idea years ago. Nothing has been done about it.

3. Restore an independent and respected intelligence and security advisory committee to the Prime Minister. Such an advisory group existed from 2005 until 2012, but was inexplicably and quietly shelved before the experiment could realize its full potential. U.S. President Barack Obama and predecessors dating back to Dwight Eisenhower have utilized just such a body to learn lessons from intelligence failures and to keep an eye on future trends – two tasks government intelligence agencies are typically not very engaged with.

4. Rewrite the legislation governing our two main intelligence agencies, CSEC and CSIS, to bring greater clarity, legality and control to their current operations. The CSIS Act was created in 1984, during the late stages of the Cold War, and makes a wholly irrelevant distinction between “foreign” intelligence (which can be collected, get it, in Canada) and “security” intelligence (which can be collected anywhere in the world). The definitions baffle everyone except Justice of Department lawyers, who presumably wrote them. Legislation providing a statute for the Communications Security Establishment was buried in the Anti-Terrorism Act, which passed in 2001. It never got the attention it deserved, and includes a power known as Ministerial Authorizations which can make permissible the “inadvertent” collection of Canadians’ communications. Who knows what this means in reality? The government and CSEC’s review agency, the office of the Commissioner, have fought for years to have this legislation amended and clarified, with no result except a fatigued stalemate. Time to get on with it.

5. Strengthen the function and capacity of the National Security Advisor. This was a key recommendation of the Air India inquiry headed by Justice John Major. Instead of focusing the position’s role on the matters suggested by its title, the current incumbent, Stephen Rigby, has seen his job expanded to include foreign-policy advice to the Prime Minister and cabinet, while his function as a strategic overseer of CSEC was shelved. The government may have paid the price for this unwise reshuffling in the Brazil episode, where a lingering question remains as to who authorized the operation. Sensitive intelligence operations, and certainly any intelligence collection that takes us into the world of spying on friends, trading partners and economic competitors, needs strong political guidance, plus political responsibility for the fallout.

6. Separate the foreign-intelligence-gathering function from CSIS, and over a multiyear period create a new civilian foreign-intelligence service, as promised in the Conservative Party’s 2006 election platform. Instead, CSIS has been allowed, without any public debate or much clear thinking, to become a hybrid service with eyes on both domestic threats and overseas targets – two very different fields of operation requiring very different skill sets and oversight.

Such an agenda would be largely budget-neutral and non-partisan, and would go a long way toward restoring political control over a burgeoning intelligence and security establishment as well as advancing Canadian public knowledge about some of what goes on in this secretive world so vital to our safety and security. It would give the government, Parliament and all Canadians a checklist, at a time when the Edward Snowden revelations are creating a sense of a world of global espionage run wild.

Published in the Globe and Mail, October 11, 2013

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