Greater Oversight Required for Canada’s Spy Agencies

Like most Canadians, I suspect, I knew very little about Communications Security Establishment Canada prior to Monday.  That is why allegations by the Brazilian Government that Canada was committing a “grave and unacceptable violation of national sovereignty” caught my and the nation’s attention.

Brazil is both an ally and an important and growing trading partner to Canada.  It is not the type of nation we want to irritate.  Certainly some diplomatic fence mending is required and will be undertaken.

However, my greater interest is in the CSEC itself.  Who are they? What is their mandate? Who do they report to? Is there appropriate oversight?

They are said to be ultra secret.  Not entirely so; in fact, they have a website complete with Government Advertising for such things as “Information for Seniors” and Canada’s non-existent Skills and Training Action Plan.

CSEC has existed since 1946. It has almost 2,000 employees and an annual budget of $350 Million. It reports, theoretically, to Parliament through the Minister of National Defence.  It is responsible for foreign signals intelligence and protecting Canada’s governmental electronic information and communication networks.

I say it reports theoretically to Parliament because, as we witnessed on Tuesday, neither the Prime Minister nor the Minister of National Defence would answer media inquiries regarding the Brazilian allegations, citing national security concerns.  I am not confident that the Executive would be any more forthcoming with an explanation if Parliament were sitting.

Successive Canadian Governments denied CSEC’s very existence until it was exposed in a CBC documentary in 1974.  Communications Security Establishment Canada uses code makers and breakers or cryptanalysis to provide the Government of Canada with IT Security and foreign signals intelligence.

After 9/11, the “Anti-Terrorism Act” refined CSEC’s mandate to:

  • acquire and use global information to provide foreign intelligence;
  • provide advice and service to protect electronic and informational Canadian infrastructure;
  • and provide technical and operational assistance to federal law enforcement and security agencies.

CSEC is forbidden by law to intercept domestic communication; after 9/11, however, CSEC was allowed, with Ministerial authorization, to intercept foreign communication that either began or ended in Canada.

A special Commissioner was created in 1996 to ensure compliance of CSEC’s activities with enabling statutes.  The Commissioner produces an Annual Report which is tabled in Parliament. The office is generally occupied by a retired appellate court Judge. The mandate of the Commissioner is primarily to protect the privacy of Canadians whose private communications may have inadvertently been intercepted.

In his last Annual Report, outgoing Commissioner Justice Robert Decary stated that he was unsure if Canadians had been so affected because of incomplete and sloppy record keeping at CSEC.

I have no doubt that in an increasingly dangerous world, with rapidly evolving communication technologies, this type of operational intelligence is necessary.  I wish it weren’t, but the reality, especially in the post 9/11 world, is that such intelligence is necessary for national and global security.

However, I get very nervous when the suggestion is made that the government is eavesdropping on private, law abiding citizens and/or pursuing corporate interests.   That these allegations emanated from NSA rogue whistleblower, Edward Snowden, makes them all the more intriguing, but also potentially troubling.

Moreover, it is as yet unclear whether the incident that is agitating Brazil was motivated by national security.  We have subsequently discovered that periodic briefings are held by CSEC and attended by Canadian mining and energy companies.  If the briefings enable Canadian companies to protect their infrastructure from terrorism, that would be reasonable and necessary; if, however, trade secrets from foreign competitors are disclosed, the meetings enter the realm of industrial espionage.  I got nervous when a Cable News security expert opined that national security includes economic security, including competitiveness.

We simply do not know why CSEC was intercepting communications of the Brazilian Mining Ministry. Opaqueness leads to suspicion and mistrust.  Transparency leads to trust and confidence.  But given the subject matter, we will likely never get answers to these critical questions.  All of this reinforces the need for greater civilian and Parliamentary oversight of Canada’s spy agencies. Assurance from credible watchdogs will satisfy most public concerns regarding the appropriateness of clandestine intelligence activities.

In the words of the outgoing Commissioner Decary, “the security and intelligence agencies understand they can speak more openly about their work without betraying state secrets or compromising national security.  The greater the transparency, the less skeptical and cynical the public will be.”

Sunlight is always the best disinfectant.

2 comments for “Greater Oversight Required for Canada’s Spy Agencies

  1. sd
    October 10, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    Can’t you convince three or four of your fellow trained seals to join you in forming a new party?
    Intelligent discourse is needed before 2015.

  2. October 10, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither. ~ Benjamin Franklin, 1706 – 1790

    Benjamin Franklin (17 January 1706 – 17 April 1790) was an American inventor, journalist, printer, diplomat, and statesman.