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Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall 2022]

Alistair Hensler, BA 1972 (with distinction) Carleton University. Served in the RCMP 1961 to 1984 primarily in the Security Service, Counter Intelligence. 1984 to 1995 served in CSIS in several senior positions including Assistant Director Requirements (Operations and Analysis). Special assignments: RCMP Liaison Officer, Bonn, Germany (1974-77). Seconded to the Secretariat of the Federal Solicitor General. 1979-81. 

Scholars and policy analysts have discussed the creation of a Canadian foreign intelligence service (FIS) for more than sixty years, but intransigent governments and public servants have failed to act. Today, inaction is not an option as the world faces conflicts in Europe, the Middle and the Far East. Increasingly, Canada is faced with foreign threats to security, democracy, and economic stability.

Yet, Canada remains alone as the only G7 democracy without a FIS to provide independent foreign intelligence to its government. Instead, Canada maintains an inadequate foreign intelligence collection system that relies on allies’ generosity and signals intelligence, both of which are providing diminishing returns.

In 1981 Justice D.C. McDonald recognized the need for a FIS when he completed an extensive and definitive commission of inquiry on the subject of certain activities of the RCMP. The principal recommendation of this report led to the creation of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) in 1984. An earlier commission of inquiry in 1969 had made the same recommendations that successive governments did not accept.

Justice McDonald also advised that the government should accompany the creation of CSIS with the establishment of a separate foreign intelligence service. He reasoned cogently that the lack of a FIS would limit the effectiveness of CSIS and would provide, inter alia, economic and political intelligence for the Government of Canada, a practice that the Americans and British had been successfully pursuing for decades. The government did not act on that advice.

Democracies large and small maintain FISs. No democracy’s reputation has been tarnished by merely maintaining a foreign intelligence capability. In World War Two, democracies witnessed firsthand the significant benefits of having advanced knowledge of the intentions of other countries and organizations. While other states created their own FIS institutions, Canada adopted a narrower approach. Instead of creating their own institution, officials began to foster relationships with the allied FISs. Thus began the long-term reliance on allies for a whole suite of Canada’s foreign intelligence requirements.

While this approach may have been sufficient for a bipolar world, today, the commonality of interests among allies has gradually diminished. At the time, public servants and politicians could not have predicted that the world would become more multipolar, despite Justice McDonald’s forecast in 1984 that “…the emergence of new issues and changes in the international climate…has been blurring the once clear distinction between one’s friends….”

We had seen examples of the changing relationships between allies when American declared Australia it’s most reliable ally, an accolade usually reserved for Canada. Additionally, with the unprecedented American threat to stop supplying foreign intelligence to Canada if Huawei 5G technology is adopted here, the chasm between American and Canadian interests is deepening. In any event, we know that allies will not provide Canada with economic or commercial intelligence that will benefit us over them. This practice is a matter of national interest, independence and sovereignty.

While skeptical senior public servants and successive governments have been responsible for the failure to create a FIS, the process should not be an arduous or a long-term undertaking once a government commits to moving forward. Within the government, several departments and agencies are now engaged in collecting and assessing foreign intelligence. The leader of this group is Communications Security Establishment (CSE) which collects signals intelligence. CSE is the only agency legally dedicated to collecting foreign intelligence outside Canada. Other leaders include the Department of National Defence, and Global Affairs Canada. The amalgamation of these disparate groups from within these departments under the leadership of CSE could form the nucleus of a FIS, thereby ensuring coordination of collection efforts.

The function of collecting foreign intelligence from recruited secret human intelligence (HUMINT) sources outside Canada is missing from this amalgamation, i.e., foreign nationals who are prepared to impart classified information to a Canadian FIS. Justice McDonald emphasized the necessity of this function to support CSIS and argued that these two functions, security and foreign intelligence, must be assigned to separate, independent services. He was concerned about creating an intelligence “monolith” – familiar to dictatorships – and “contagion” – the more liberal investigative activities of foreign intelligence collection abroad creeping into strictly legislated security intelligence investigations in Canada under oversight by the judiciary. These concerns remain valid today.

Amalgamating the existing disparate groups with CSE, as mentioned above, will considerably reduce the costs associated with creating a FIS. However, this proposal is not a suggestion to attempt to emulate the American CIA or British MI6.

Instead, Canada should look to the examples presented by similar or smaller countries such as Australia, which maintains the Secret Intelligence Service on a modest budget. The only additional funding for a Canadian FIS would be for staffing positions for recruiting foreign nationals abroad as sources.

Organizations could recruit personnel from within the federal public service, which offers a culturally diverse group with linguistic skills and experience working abroad. Staffing with current public servants will reduce the intake time because the lengthy vetting and security screening processes will be minimized or eliminated.

Training FIS agents who would be assigned abroad would require expeditious action. The identification and recruitment of security intelligence sources in Canada is a learned technique taught to CSIS members. That technique can be adapted with the assistance of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) or ASIS to recruit foreign nationals abroad. The risks are more significant, but the technique is similar.

This paper does not presume to identify targets for a FIS. Annually, the government sets FI priorities which, in the absence of a FIS, are unrealistic or reliant on allies. World events of the past decade should guide the government’s priorities. No country should be excluded. Allies spy on one another, and there are no friends in the world of economics and commerce.

In some cases, Canada may prioritize assisting an ally in an area where the ally does not have access. For a new FIS, the priorities would be modest but realistic.

If Canada aspires to be an influential middle power, it needs to develop a less reliant foreign intelligence policy on allies. That reliance, which can lead to misinformation and manipulation, creates an impression that Canada is subservient to allied powers rather than an independent arbitrator. A FIS should be viewed positively as a valuable adjunct to foreign policy, not as a negative to Canada’s reputation. The way forward will not be easy. Departments and agencies will decry the loss of staff, budget and responsibilities. Others will complain about a FIS infringing on their jurisdictions. Creating a FIS will require a robust and committed government to overcome these protests. Given the deteriorating situations in various areas of the world, now is the time for government action.

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