There has been a flurry of reporting on the issue of Foreign Interference in Canadian elections recently. Sam Cooper has been covering this issue for years but dropped a bombshell in the fall of 2022 when he reported on intelligence briefs that advised that China’s Consulate in Toronto had organized an election interference network that among other things transferred $250,000 to 11 unidentified Federal candidates in the 2019 election.
Not to be outdone, Robert Fife and Steven Chase dropped their own large detonating ordinance in The Globe and Mail – reporting that they had seen Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) documents detailing China’s sophisticated strategy to influence the 2021 Federal Election. Foreign interference in elections is a real and complex threat without easy solutions – which is why I don’t want to talk about it here. What I want to discuss is the leaks.
Leaks are not a mature way to talk about National Security
Leaks are bad. I was an intelligence officer “I.O.” with the CSIS for just under a decade. I recently wrote a book about my experience – I Was Never Here – which I believe is the first memoir of a Canadian spy writing about the experience of working for our domestic intelligence service. I realize the irony of writing an article about how leaks are wrong after writing a book. However, going through the process of getting a book published and trying to stay out of jail has made me something of an expert on my obligations under the Security of Information Act.
I wrote my memoir to provide a little more information on what it was like to, “run away and join the circus” as I have described my career, being mindful not to sacrifice national security or the welfare of my former colleagues. The real irony is that the leaker of clearly sensitive classified information may actually have more protection than I did as the, “public interest” provision of the SOIA could be used as a defence in court proceedings. Regardless, of their legality – there are reasons why I stayed as far from the line as I could – these leaks have some very real and serious implications on CSIS operations and our national security.
We lose the trust of our sources and partners
Our ability to protect our sources and methods of intelligence gathering is a cornerstone of the relationship with those we work with. When I was in the field collecting information, I promised my sources confidentiality. If we lose that trust less people will be willing to work with us – and that could have catastrophic results of our access to possibly life-saving information. This is true for our allies as well. Canada is a unique member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing community in that we only have a domestic Humint security service. The Brits have MI5 and MI6. The Australians ASIO and ASIS. The Americans have the CIA and the FBI – (which is not a like for like comparison but highlights their ability to collect at home and abroad). Yes, the Americans have had leaks before. But we need them a lot more than they need us. If we can no longer be trusted it would have much more severe implications. That is one big reason why we ultimately needed to follow our Five Eyes partners in banning Huawei from our 5G network. And one only needs to look at the newly formed in AUKUS security pact to see the very real prospect of being left behind.
Just because you don’t hear doesn’t mean nothing is going on
And here’s the thing, we are actually very good at what we do. We punch above our weight. I was interviewed by a journalist recently about foreign interference and he asked me – why doesn’t CSIS know about these things? He assumed that because there had not been any public mention of them prior to a few months ago that must mean our intelligence service missed it. That isn’t necessarily the case – CSIS’ mandate is to collect, analyse and advise government on threats to the security of Canada, and more recently to mitigate where necessary (under bill C-59). Our client is the government not the public. There is an annual public report but for the most part the organization takes a narrow view of wider engagement. We gather a lot. In my view it’s the sharing and explaining we’re terrible at. Which is why I believe we are seeing increasing leaks from people who are growing frustrated at the existing information sharing channels and lack of resulting action from the serious threat information being collected and not acted upon.
Where are the bottlenecks?
There is a very small community of national Security reporters in this country and lots of threats. They should be (and in this case were) the ones raising security alarms. The press can articulate these issues without the help of classified documents and often do so. However it is obvious the play that these stories get when leaks are involved. As I said, Sam Cooper and Terry Glavin have been covering this area for a while. I’ve seen many reports that I thought would land like bombshells, but didn’t because of the limited reach and breadth of the national security community and limited attention span of a distracted public and political class. (If I can allow myself a minor gripe – I wrote a CSIS memoir and despite repeated requests from my publisher I couldn’t get invited on any CBC or TVO shows to discuss it). I get it though – my book came out just as Russia was invading Ukraine and the Emergencies Act was about to be invoked. The small number of people who traditionally cover national security were pardon the pun, occupied.
Another issue is that the government (all governments) which is the ultimate client of CSIS, prefers not to share. It’s in their political interest to keep secrets under-wraps and not expose government failings or threats to the public. The government also isn’t a single body. There are layers and silos with bottlenecks and gatekeepers. How many people can name the Director of CSIS? How about the National Security and Intelligence Advisor? Did you know there’s an Assistant Secretary to Cabinet for Security Intelligence, and a Foreign and Defence Policy Advisor. There’s the Deputy Minister of Public Safety, the PCO and PMO. Can you tell me who reports to who and who’s responsibility it is to brief the PM? I find it unlikely but it’s entirely possible the Prime Minister wasn’t briefed or selectively briefed as intelligence made its way through the political maze, with plenty of but-covering and plausible deniability to go around which ultimately serves those involved interests, but not the public.
CSIS has a history of being cagey
I don’t know if it’s because of the politics or just engrained in the DNA but in my experience CSIS has always been hesitant to share. Kory Teneyke was recently on the Herle Burley podcast complaining about the quality, timeliness, and relevance of CSIS reporting. I’ve heard this complaint before coming from inside the house as well. As one of my ex-colleagues used to say in great frustration – what is the point of having all this information if we don’t tell anyone about it? There is an over-classification issue, a fear of getting it wrong (intelligence isn’t always perfect) and a general lack of trust in our client’s and the public’s ability to handle sensitive information so we default to redact. To be honest, I don’t think this is strictly a CSIS problem. Have you seen the state of our access to information regime in Canada? CSIS is not alone or immune to the growing trend of secrecy in government. CSIS is just one of the most secret government departments in a government infrastructure that already lends itself to be closed off and not transparent.
The worst of both worlds
So, what we are left with is the worst of all worlds. CSIS information that is of limited value provided to a government consumer who’s happy to know but share as little as possible. If you want to see how this plays out in the real world, consider how the Ontario Liberal government handled a similar charge of foreign interference. It was reported that in 2010 CSIS briefed the Premier that a Liberal Cabinet minister was susceptible to influence due to his close ties with Chinese officials. The Wynne government claims nothing of substance came forward. Details of the meeting got out and the end result, the Minister in question ultimately got promoted. Twice. Contrast this with Kathleen Wynne’s commendable response to sexual harassment complaints that were dealt with discretely and definitively.
Or they leak too
You can see how CSIS would be stung by the whole affair. Consider a more recent example, going back to Cooper’s reporting. An article from the Globe and Mail attempting to set the record straight by “two sources with direct knowledge” of the briefings. Apparently CSIS did brief Trudeau after all, but he was informed that there was no evidence of Chinese money secretly flowing to the 11 candidates. Then this – “the source said the information was based on CSIS electronic and agent surveillance of the Toronto Consulate, as well as its Chinese-Canadian proxies and friendship societies, which are closely aligned with Beijing’s views”. That is textbook sources and methods. The kind of thing I could never write about in my book. The kind of thing that CSIS would never want disclosed. I hope if the Prime Minister is looking for leakers, we’re looking for these people too.
Building on existing internal frustrations
The working level intelligence officers at CSIS are seeing all of this play out and it’s worth noting, they are already frustrated. There has been widespread reporting that the morale at CSIS is low. I did a podcast about it with my ex-colleague Phil Gurksi. The prompt was a recent story regarding warrants. “NSIRA heard and read much about very low morale at CSIS,” said the report. “Morale is affected when a warrant acquisition system repeatedly prevents CSIS officers from performing their mandated duties and is the source of regular reputational crises stemming from failures to meet the duty of candour”. Basically, CSIS staff want to do their jobs but can’t get warrants approved to investigate the threats they believe need to be investigated.
Then when they do investigate threats such as the “freedom convoy”, there is the curious case of the Director of CSIS finding no evidence the Emergencies Act met the threshold of threat to national security as defined by the CSIS mandate. But nevertheless, he still recommended the invocation of the Emergencies Act. In a separate post Gurski opined – “When a senior intelligence official appears to do a 180 to satisfy government views on how to interpret threats it is a sad day for national security professionals.” This may not be the dominant view among my ex-colleagues. But I know he isn’t alone in feeling this way. National security professionals who believe they are unable to do their job and aren’t being listened to when they do is not good.
So where are we now?
So it’s not a surprise to me that we have a tit for tat leaking battle playing out in the media to see which side ultimately can swing public opinion – the “we were never briefed; if we were it’s not a big problem; and if it is there’s not much we can do about it anyway” versus the “we told you we have a big problem, please be shamed into doing something about it, please don’t mind the damage we are doing to our organization’s credibility as we try to convince you the threat is credible.”
On this note, it is reported that these documents were shared pretty widely. They did not necessarily come from CSIS or even from Canadian officials for that matter. Would it be in a foreign state’s interest to see our government take these threats more serious after years of trying to convince us to be tougher on China? Chinese foreign interference is not the only foreign interference game in town. I’m not saying that’s what’s happening here but it’s an example of how big and not isolated a challenge all this is and once again why CSIS is often reluctant to share. Because the document was so widely shared we may not ever find out who leaked it and even if it wasn’t them, ultimately it’s CSIS reputation that takes the hit.
Where do we go from here?
There is one positive here. This doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. Honestly, foreign interference is happening at all levels of government and no parties are immune to influence. The Globe and Mail article mentioned a Conservative Ontario MPP helping Federal Liberal candidates. This isn’t a party vs party issue, it’s a country vs country one. We could and should take a team Canada approach to acknowledging the problem and facing it together.
We should also have a talk about our culture of talking about national security in Canada. These leaks are happening because the system isn’t functioning properly. This self-learned secrecy, reinforced at all levels, only helps our adversaries. I appreciate the fact that more people know about the threats we face but I hate how they’ve learned about it. I wrote my book because as a domestic intelligence officer I was out knocking on doors asking Canadians for help. Nobody knows what CSIS is and what it does. The more people know the better because I feel like more people will help – and if CSIS says there’s a problem, in their public report, to government and (one can dream) directly to the public – more people will listen. There is a mature way to have this conversation, to engage and inform the public on the very real threats we are facing. This is not it. The leakers may think they acting in the public interest but ultimately they undermine the organization’s credibility, cause real harm to our relationship with our allies and the public which runs the risk of making us all less safe.
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