The question of whether Canada should have a foreign human intelligence service, along the lines of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), dates back at least to the 1990s, and even to the end of the Second World War with Canada’s decision not to pursue espionage activities abroad. However, the issue regularly resurfaces in academic, political and media circles. This paper does not aim to settle the debate definitively, but rather to review the salient points of the debate between advocates and opponents of the creation of a foreign human intelligence service (FHIS) in Canada, considering the current international context and recent developments in Canadian intelligence. While recognizing the existing transformations in Canadian intelligence, this paper argues that whatever Canada’s intelligence needs may be, it is unlikely that it will move towards the creation of a foreign human intelligence service in the short to medium term, and that Canada’s intelligence needs can be met without the creation of a foreign human intelligence service.
Canada and Foreign Human Intelligence
Intelligence activities are relatively unpublicized in Canada and rarely part of the political debate, unlike our American and British neighbors. A 2021 report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) on public attitudes of itself shows that Canadians know relatively little about CSIS’ functions as an intelligence service. When the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) is mentioned to Canadians, only 26% say they have heard of it and 11% may have heard of it. This demonstrates that Canadians are largely uninformed about their intelligence agencies and their functions.
CSIS was created in 1984 to replace the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Security Service, which was accused at the time of having, among other things, an aggressive approach to intelligence by using illegal political espionage operations. The goal was to move security intelligence to a civilian – not a law enforcement – agency. The RCMP, however, retains its law enforcement mandate in matters of national security. CSIS, on the other hand, has no police prerogative. Its mandate is to investigate and report to government on activities that may constitute threats to the security of Canada, to take steps to reduce the threat, to provide security assessments on individuals requiring access to classified information, sensitive sites or on applicants for citizenship, permanent residence, refugee protection or other temporary visitors. It is also mandated to collect foreign intelligence, on Canadian soil, at the request of the Minister of Foreign Affairs or the Minister of National Defence.
The notion of foreign intelligence in Canada is not understood in geographic terms, but rather in terms of the nature of the intelligence. Thus, while CSIS has limited foreign intelligence collection capabilities, it does have a presence abroad as part of its security intelligence mandate. Security intelligence relates to threats to the security of Canada as set out in Section 2 of the CSIS Act: espionage or sabotage directed against Canada or detrimental to its interests; foreign-influenced clandestine activities threatening Canada; terrorism in or from Canada; and covert and unlawful actions aimed at the violent overthrow of government or the undermining of an established system of government. Foreign intelligence is broader and is understood to be any intelligence about a foreign, i.e. non-Canadian, entity. While the distinction may appear clear in the text, the reality is more ambiguous. First, according to Section 16, CSIS may collect foreign intelligence within Canada, provided that it is not directed at Canadian citizens or permanent residents and only at the request of the departments of Foreign Affairs or Defence. Second, it is questionable to what extent CSIS can collect foreign intelligence under its Section 2 mandate to investigate threats to the security of Canada. However, if one thing is clear, it is that CSIS has limited capabilities in terms of foreign intelligence collection and foreign operations.
The second primary intelligence agency is the CSE, the heir to the World War II signals intelligence intercept and cryptanalysis efforts. CSE‘s primary mandate is to protect the Government of Canada’s information and computer systems, collect foreign signals intelligence, and conduct defensive and active cyber operations. As such, CSE is Canada’s foreign intelligence service, although its mandate is limited to signals intelligence. However, CSE cannot intercept signals intelligence on Canadian territory or from Canadian citizens, except when assisting other agencies such as CSIS, the RCMP or the Canadian Armed Forces.
Canada does have a foreign intelligence service, but it is limited to signals intelligence. This Canadian specificity leads some to propose the creation of a specifically foreign human intelligence service in Canada, which would then fill the presumed weakness of CSIS.
For the Creation of a Foreign Human Intelligence Service
What are the main arguments in favour of such an intelligence service? First, a foreign human intelligence service would provide Canada with information that would allow it to make relevant decisions based on information that Canada has decided to collect according to its priorities, especially in a changing world where reliance on foreign intelligence from our allies no longer necessarily serves Canadian interests. Indeed, as Stephanie Carvin and Thomas Juneau argue, the information Canada receives from its allies often reflects the priorities and interests of those allies and not necessarily those of Canada. Some argue that Canada has potentially missed out on important information for its decision-making, and that the opportunity to collect foreign intelligence would advance Canada’s geostrategic, economic, military, environmental and scientific objectives.
While not arguing for or against the creation of a FHIS, Farson and Teeple examined four options for Canada to develop a human foreign intelligence capability, none of which appear to be a solution. First, Canada could create a new institution, but the costs involved (estimated at about C$200 million in 2006, compared to the current C$500 million for Australia’s foreign intelligence service) would likely exceed the country’s intelligence needs – not clearly identified by the authors – and it is not clear that the creation of such a service would be well received by the public. Second, Canada could significantly expand the role of CSIS, allowing it to collect foreign human intelligence and conduct clandestine operations, but this would raise many legal issues, although they could be resolved. Third, it would be possible to add a foreign human intelligence component to an agency that already facilitate foreign intelligence activities, such as CSE. However, such an addition would run up against the particular organizational culture of CSE, which exclusively focuses on signals intelligence. Finally, the last proposal would be to moderately expand the foreign intelligence powers and mandate of CSIS.
Recently, several articles have been published that bring the debate over the creation of a foreign human intelligence service in Canada back to the forefront. While assumed that this debate, at least in the academic arena, was over, Hensler has reopened this debate by publishing an article examining Canada’s foreign human intelligence service question, 25 years after he first spoke out in favour of such a service. The author begins by reviewing the long hesitation and evasiveness of various governments, both Conservative and Liberal, to address the issue, sometimes arguing that more studies are needed (when there are already enough), sometimes claiming that such a service would damage Canada’s international reputation. For the author, not only is this not the case, but it reflects a lack of understanding by governments on what a foreign human intelligence service is and what it does. Finally, the main point of his argument, apart from noting that Canada would gain independence from the foreign intelligence it receives and that it could gain influence, is that Canada falls behind most of its allies, and that the creation of such a service would show Canada’s allies, notably the Five Eyes, its commitment to being on an equal footing and thus increase its prestige.
On the other hand, over the past few months, numerous academic, journalistic and intelligence practitioner forums have also revived the debate. Some, without taking a position, remind us that it is time to seriously consider the question, as Canada is increasingly dependent on allied intelligence. Others point to the financial and political costs of creating such a service and of engaging in clandestine espionage abroad. However, even if it is to enter the arena of international espionage, a foreign human intelligence service must be at least aggressive in its pursuit of valuable information. The government must be prepared to support this aggressiveness and, above all, to take responsibility in the event of failure or leaks to the media.
The arguments for the creation of such a service all focus on the defence of Canadian national interests through the collection and analysis of foreign intelligence and the over-reliance on allied intelligence. The allies could indeed decide to terminate intelligence-sharing with Canada, although this seems unlikely at this time. Canada would need such a service to have a decision-making advantage, while advancing its interests on the international stage. For example, a very good threat and intelligence assessment of Iraq’s possible possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in 2002-2003 allowed Canadian intelligence to assess that there was insufficient evidence to support this possibility. However, this correct intelligence assessment was made in the absence of an FHIS and on the basis of intelligence provided by allies.
Against the Creation of a Foreign Human Intelligence Service
On the other hand, many people are against the creation of such an intelligence service. For Robinson, this would be a considerably suboptimal policy choice for the Canadian government, as it raises many questions about the public accountability of such a service while questioning the usefulness of this type of intelligence for decision-making. Indeed, there is no solid proposal currently to make clandestine operations accountable to the public, and there is no evidence to suggest with certainty that foreign intelligence has a direct impact on the choice of a particular policy. For others, the purpose of Canadian intelligence would not be to spy extensively on foreign countries to gain foreign policy advantage, but rather to protect Canadian territory and people.
Stuart Farson’s 1999 contribution takes a similar stance on this debate. According to Farson, Canada would not need a foreign human intelligence service because all of Canada’s intelligence needs are being met. He identifies four areas of intelligence utility in Canada: business and commerce, national security, foreign relations, and international obligations. In the first two areas, business and national security, intelligence is directed inward. Political intelligence for foreign relations is already well provided by the network of Canadian embassies, which report a great deal of information that only needs to be better analyzed and disseminated. Finally, as for Canada’s international obligations, it can rely on its main allies to obtain the necessary information. Moreover, one of Canada’s concerns would be not to be a threat to the United States, which leads it to favour inward-looking intelligence.
However, it could be argued that since 1999, Canada’s intelligence needs may have changed, which will be the subject of the next section.
Is It Time for Canada to Have a Foreign Human Intelligence Service?
While we have seen the pros and cons of such an intelligence service, the main question remains: does Canada need it? Thus, even though Canada is largely dependent on its allies for foreign human intelligence, and that it would be advantageous for decision-making to rely on its own intelligence, it is not clear that Canada needs a new service for this purpose. Stephanie Carvin and Thomas Juneau, who agree on the importance of decreasing dependence on foreign intelligence from our allies, all the while increasing Canada’s ability to collect its own intelligence and produce its own analysis, propose to “Canadianize” Canadian intelligence. By this, the Juneau and Carvin intend mainly to improve the analytical capabilities within the Canadian intelligence community, while relying more on Canadian-gathered intelligence. Thus, there is no need to create a new intelligence service, but rather to increase the efficiency of existing services. This proposal is consistent with recent developments in Canadian intelligence. For example, there has been an incremental evolution in the mandates and powers of CSIS and the CSE over the past twenty years. CSE now has the authority to employ active operations in cyberspace, including the disabling of devices or computer networks that pose not only a threat to Canadian security, but also a threat to Canada’s international affairs.
For its part, CSIS now has a disruption and threat reduction mandate. However, this still applies to security intelligence and CSIS is prohibited from incurring physical harm against any person. In addition, a federal judge recently authorized CSIS to conduct investigations abroad, even if the investigations violated the laws of the state in question, when dealing with threats to the security of Canada. While Canadian intelligence is still quite limited with respect to foreign intelligence, there are incremental developments that consider the contemporary context in which intelligence operates and are intended to make Canadian intelligence more efficient in its tasks.
On the other hand, and without risking a hazardous prediction about the future of Canadian intelligence, it is unlikely that Canada will engage in such an institutional creation soon. Even Hensler, an advocate of the creation of such an intelligence service, notes that Canada has an inherent aversion to foreign human intelligence. Moreover, Canada’s national security culture is rather risk averse. Other recent research on the Canadian intelligence community has also come to similar conclusions, suggesting that the Canadian way of doing intelligence is not to engage in clandestine foreign intelligence gathering. Rather, Canada is said to have a defensive and minimalist intelligence culture, emphasizing the protection of Canadian territory and people, while collecting foreign signals intelligence and contributing to a multilateral intelligence-sharing partnership.
Canada has a unique approach among its allies to foreign intelligence, understood not in geographic terms, but in terms of the nature of the intelligence collected. Canada has chosen to have a very limited foreign human intelligence capability, while at the same time developing a significant foreign signals intelligence capability. This lack of foreign human intelligence has led many to argue in favour of an FHIS in Canada, whether this means creating a new intelligence agency or expanding the mandates of CSIS.
For advocates of the creation of a FHIS, the advantage would be that Canada would decide what intelligence to collect based on its priorities and interests, rather than relying on the intelligence, or even analysis, of its allies, which often do not reflect Canadian interests. On the other hand, some are skeptical about the benefits and feasibility of such a service, arguing that Canada has no additional need for foreign intelligence, that the costs would be significant, or that Canada’s priorities are not in spying on foreign countries, but in protecting its territory and its population against specific threats.
In particular, the paper argues that Canada currently does not need to create an FHIS. Instead, it needs to make the existing Canadian intelligence apparatus more efficient through its “Canadianization”, as proposed by Carvin and Juneau, i.e. by improving analytical capabilities and relying more on Canadian intelligence. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the country would embark on such an institutional creation given its rather minimalist and defensive risk-averse culture.
Thus, while this makes the creation of a foreign human intelligence service unlikely in the short term, it does not preclude an incremental evolution of the legal framework surrounding intelligence practice in Canada. The evolution of the legal framework is necessary, as noted by CSIS Director David Vigneault, for Canadian intelligence to adapt to the international environment and to new security challenges. This is the option that various governments have chosen over the past 20 years.