When Intel Services Go Public, You Know It’s Serious

When Intel Services Go Public, You Know It’s Serious
The Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) complex is pictured in Ottawa in a file photo. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Phil Gurski
I don’t know how many times I have heard Canadians say that CSIS stands for the “Canadian Secret Intelligence Service.” It does not. The first “s” stand for “security,” and a security intelligence service is different than a foreign intelligence one, although in some countries the mandates overlap (think CIA). Similarly, many are convinced that CSE is short for “Canadian Security Establishment.” Again, wrong. The “c” stands for communications and is a hint into what this agency does (it collects signals intelligence, a.k.a. SIGINT, and helps to keep our communications secure).

In any event, it is not hard to see why their acronyms are misinterpreted. Both organizations are very secretive and do not often share their findings openly. They are reticent for a very simple reason: The protection of sources and methods is critical to their continued success. Should they open the files to everyone, they would not be in business much longer.

What, then, should Canadians make of three recent announcements by these institutions? What did they have to say? Why would they do so blatantly? Should we be worried?

The releases in question concern China’s influence-peddling in Canada, Russian interference, and online criminal activity. One was produced by CSIS, titled “Don’t Be a Target of China’s Intelligence Services Online Recruitment,” and the other two by the CSE.

That CSIS would give Canadians advice on how not to get on China’s target list would seem like overkill in a way. After all, we have heard so much about Chinese illicit activity of late, especially with regard to the regime’s attempts to sway our two most recent federal elections. Beginning with a “leak” of several CSIS reports to Canadian media, we have all been subject to “he said, she said” in the form of an inadequate report by former governor general David Johnston and countless debates on what the government knew or did not know about these egregious attempts to subvert our democracy.

Many believe the government failed to act appropriately when intelligence was passed on. As a consequence, is CSIS acting independently when it provides its ideas on how not to be subject to China’s actions?

As for CSE, that agency has been even more secretive throughout its history (I worked there as a senior multilingual analyst from 1983 to 2001 before moving to CSIS). Canadians rarely hear about what it does and how it does it; the current chief, Caroline Xavier, was careful not to disclose too much in her interview with the CBC on how it acts to prevent online criminal activity. Still, the move by the head honcho may point to a slightly more open spy agency moving forward—and that would be a good thing in my estimation.

Our intelligence agencies are very good at what they do. While they must protect sources and methods, engaging Canadians on various aspects of the threat landscape (Russia, China, terrorism, etc.) demonstrates that they do care about these matters and can provide insight to help all of us collectively to be wiser about who is trying to do us harm.

But is there another message here? Is it possible that both organizations are choosing this rather unorthodox method of communicating their knowledge, gained after all through secret intelligence collection, because of a sense of frustration over the federal government’s utter ineptitude at using their information to take action against threat actors? It has become painfully obvious that the Liberals haven’t a clue about the intelligence they are receiving and what to do with it. Maybe CSE and CSIS are simply skipping the middleman, seen to be incompetent, and talking directly to Canadians.

In the end, knowing more is always better than knowing less. If CSIS and CSE can better prepare all of us to fend off efforts to undermine our societies, but in ways that do not jeopardize their functions and capabilities, I say hip hip hooray. At least someone in the federal government seems to care about doing the right thing.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Phil Gurski spent 32 years working at Canadian intelligence agencies and is a specialist in terrorism. He is the author of six books on terrorism.
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