If the head of a spy agency speaks publicly, shouldn't we listen?

Phil Gurski · Security Program SET Director at PDI · Posted: March 2, 2021

When a CSIS director takes the unusual step of telling us all about a national security threat, he does not do so lightly. Spy agencies do not normally want their adversaries to know they are the focus of attention.

The heads of security intelligence agencies seldom open up. When they do, it is a sign to pay attention.

Canadians witnessed a very rare event recently. The director of CSIS, David Vigneault, gave a speech – virtually, of course – to the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Ottawa. In this all too infrequent occurrence, he talked about what keeps him up at night as the head of Canada’s premier spy agency.

Among the topics were the usual fare: terrorism, in which Canadians have seen attacks on our soil from a wide variety of actors or seen citizens go abroad to join groups like ISIL. But there was also something a little different. The director noted, “the greatest strategic threat to Canada’s national security comes from hostile activities by foreign states.”

By this he meant what we in the business call “foreign interference” (through which states try to leverage influence on diasporas as well as on other Canadians, to direct Canadian policy), and classic foreign espionage. Again, to cite Vigneault, “Historically, spies were focused on obtaining Canadian political, military and diplomatic secrets. While these secrets are still attractive, today our adversaries are more focused on intellectual property and advanced research held on computer systems in small start-ups, corporate boardrooms, or university labs across the country.”

In other words, hard-won Canadian knowledge and achievements in a number of fields is being stolen, often via cyber attacks. The director went so far as to name those malicious actors: Russia and China, although he went to town much more on the latter. While he recognized that China is an important trade partner he also minced no words when he said the it presented “a direct threat to our national security and sovereignty.”

CSIS reports to the federal government. Its primary role is to collect raw intelligence, process it, assess it for accuracy, and package it up for senior officials. The CSIS Act outlines, in section 12, that the service “shall report to and advise the government of Canada.” Note that, as a rule, advice can be taken and acted upon or ignored.

It stands to reason, however, that when a CSIS director takes the very unusual step to publicly name national security threats, he does not do so lightly. Spy agencies do not normally want their adversaries to know they are the focus of attention. It also stands to reason, then, that this information should be taken seriously, very seriously.

If, then, the CSIS director has deliberately told us of China’s intentions and actions, can anyone please explain why nothing seems to be happening? Need I remind readers that China has held two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in abysmal conditions for more than two years? Or that Chinese-sponsored thugs have harassed Canadians of Uyghur and Tibetan origin in our own country?

With this in mind, can someone also enlighten me on why in Heaven’s name Canadian government and universities are partnering with Huawei? Our closest allies – the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, all members of the so-called “Five Eyes” community – have all banned such work. Why has Canada not followed suit? It is worth asking whether Canada’s inexplicable reluctance to do so may have repercussions for intelligence-sharing.

Alas, Canadians, whether they be in government or the private sector, ignore intelligence for several reasons. It may be “inconvenient.” It may interfere with some activities seen as lucrative. Or it may be distrusted on more prosaic grounds (“I don’t like spies”). In my experience over three decades in Canadian intelligence, it is usually all of the above.

David Vigneault opened the door to a very secretive world last week, if only a smidgen. His words may have struck some as dire and he may have ruffled a few feathers. An outright rejection or dismissal of his warnings, however, based on decades of intelligence collection, would be foolish.

Let’s see what the government, private sector, and universities make of all this. I am not confident they will listen.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Professional Development Institute of the University of Ottawa.

 Phil Gurski spent 32 years at CSE and CSIS and is the director of the Security Program at the University of OttawaProfessional Development Institute. His latest book is The Peaceable Kingdom?: A history of terrorism in Canada from Confederation to the present. He is president/CEO of  Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting

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