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Andrew Kirsch: I am a former CSIS intelligence officer. It would be nice if the PM took our security advice seriously

Commentary

I first Googled “How do I become a Canadian spy” in July 2005. I was living in London, U.K. working in finance when a bus and several subway stations had just been blown up by domestic homegrown terrorists only a few blocks from my office. Fifty-two people were killed and 770 were injured. Just four years earlier when two passenger planes hit the Twin Towers murdering nearly 3,000, I was a senior at Brown University in Rhode Island. This was followed by terrorists killing 191 civilians on a Madrid train. For those who don’t remember this time period, it was the age of terrorism. It was an age where not only did you know what the threat was, but it felt very real and dangerously close. 

So, I signed up to be an intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and joined the Canadian Forces Infantry Reserves with the Queens Own Rifles of Canada. I became part of a generation of young, idealistic Canadians who, as one of my former colleagues put it, “ran away and joined the circus.” We wanted to serve Canada and really weren’t all that sure what that meant or how to do it. If I’m honest, my first Google search was actually “Does Canada have spies?”

I would go on to spend nearly a decade serving in both organizations, leaving in 2016. Looking back, I am extremely proud of where I worked, what we accomplished, and the important work my former colleagues continue to do to keep Canada and Canadians safe. I was able to share some of this in my memoir, but most of it will always be a secret. 

When I wore my army uniform in public, people used to walk up to me and thank me for my service. But my military career was mostly confined to parade nights at the armoury and the occasional weekend exercise in rural Ontario. It was while wearing my intelligence officer uniform (a generic button-down shirt and navy blue blazer) that I got to do the cool spy stuff that no one would ever know about or thank me publicly for.

Working long hours, dealing with stressful cases, and then lying to everyone I knew about what I was up to was a challenge. Occasionally you’d get a rah-rah speech from CSIS management saying things like, “The powers that be [the politicians in power] really appreciate everything you’re doing. They were so impressed with the information you were able to collect and you are making a real difference in the safety of our country.” It was a thankless job in many ways, but we did it because we believed we were making a difference.

Today, I am not sure how any executive at CSIS will be able to stand up and give that speech with a straight face after watching Prime Minister Trudeau and senior officials at the foreign interference inquiry hearings say under oath, repeatedly, that they don’t often read CSIS  briefs. That they take our intelligence with a huge grain of salt. That they don’t think our findings are worth following up on. 

“There is a certain degree of—I would not say skepticism—but of critical thought that must be applied to any information collected by our security and intelligence services,” explained Prime Minister Trudeau.

The reason this is a major problem is not the hurt feelings of former spies, but what it reveals about the government’s attitude towards its spy agency and perhaps the wider public’s views on security. It’s an attitude that poses problems for the future security of Canada. There has always been a naiveté and complacency about the threats we face in an increasingly dangerous world. Canadians just don’t think much about our security. There is a general attitude of: “What does anyone want with us?” The lack of pressure the public is applying to government to fund our military in recent years may be a good illustration of this. 

The reality is that our national security is not an accident. It is the result of thousands of men and women in our intelligence community, military, law enforcement, and corporate security, getting up each day and going to work. The safety we enjoy is on some level proof that the system is working. This also means our security is not guaranteed to continue. I believe Canada has been able to get by on the sacrifices of the few men and women who do these jobs, and that our political leadership, despite a lack of political pressure, has taken generally this threat seriously. Unfortunately, I fear that as the threats we face become more nuanced, those we entrust with our safety are increasingly unwilling or not sufficiently empowered to protect us. 

The CSIS mandate is to collect, analyse, and advise government on threats to the security of Canada. There are four main threats: espionage and sabotage, foreign interference, terrorism, and subversion. It was my job to be a “collector” of information.  As an intelligence officer for a domestic security service in the post-9/11 days, I was in the coffee and conversation business. I would often knock on doors 20 minutes from where I grew up, asking people for information and help with my national security investigation. 

Back then when we tackled enemies like the 2006 Toronto 18 terrorists and the 2013 Via Rail derailment plot, it was a pretty straightforward job. We didn’t want to see the domestic attacks we saw around the world happen here at home. They were tangible threats we could see and easily explain at those doorsteps.  

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, left, and Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), David Vigneault, right, wait to appear before the Special Committee on Canada-People’s Republic of China Relationship (CACN) on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press.

The threats CSIS is being asked to monitor today are far more nuanced and less visible. My colleagues and I used to worry about bombs going off in capital cities, but now an act of terrorism could be someone hacking into a water treatment plant to change chemical levels. In my day, foreign interference was honey traps and the attempted blackmail of elected officials. Now, we are uncovering potential state-sponsored misinformation campaigns during elections. Espionage and sabotage are rampant in the theft of IP and the hacking of companies. These threats are far less tangible and often difficult to attribute to a single source. Often we’re left with no easy answers to mitigate the risk. 

Meanwhile, during this period when threats are evolving, our security apparatus is left to contend with a political leadership that is hesitant to listen to our warnings and seemingly content with avoiding having to deal with them.

Recently the government announced legislation to counter the threat of foreign interference, including expanding CSIS powers and a foreign agent registry. While many will be applauding these actions, I can’t help but think back to how this all began and what it took to finally get government to act. The public inquiry was the result of political pressure caused by the leaking of sensitive information to the media on the growing threats and their continued inaction on foreign interference. Leaking is wrong. It’s also not done lightly. It is a symptom of an intelligence service that felt its reports and advice were not being dealt with appropriately. I hope this is a wake-up call because it’s a terrible way to make national security policy.

I worry about what all of this means for Canadian security. What has this complacency meant for the next generation of army reservists and intelligence officer recruits? 

In 2024, what is prompting their Google searches before submitting a job application to CSIS? And what are they going to encounter if they get there? In my time working for the intelligence service, it was a growing organization capitalizing off of a strong mandate, an army of bright-eyed recruits, and a risk-tolerant executive. Today, I fear that, at a time when their job is more difficult than ever, we may be losing our will to support those who are working to keep us safe. This is a dangerous direction to be going in. 

Scott Taymun: How to strengthen Canada’s state capacity

Commentary

Much has been written over the past few months on the state of the country and the sense amongst many that “everything is broken,” including the federal government itself.  From the ArriveCan mess to evidence of foreign interference in our elections to the astonishment of Canadians witnessing 30 percent mark-ups to manage “supply contracts” under our procurement system to the immigration-housing trainwreck, the calls for an “overhaul” of the system are growing louder by the day.  

As former mandarins Mel Cappe, Kevin Lynch, and Jim Mitchell recently wrote for The Hub: “an overhaul is needed for reasons manifold and obvious to most Canadians. ” The issue, in other words, “is not whether the government of Canada needs to do things differently, but how to structure the change.”

Before we debate what and how needs to be fixed, however, I would argue we need to be more precise on what is and is not working.  

Let’s start with the positive. The vast majority of the federal government is not broken and is working quite well. While many would argue the federal government has become too big, that does not take away from the fact that there are several hundred thousand dedicated public servants doing their jobs, every day, across the country and internationally, very well. As a former CBSA executive, I remain very proud of the work my colleagues at the agency do every day to keep our border running. And, the story of effective delivery of government services on the ground extends to just about every facet of government operations—from the work our intelligence service does to food inspection to policing.

So, what is not working?  

Unfortunately for those in the “Ottawa Bubble,” it is the “machine” inside the bubble itself that appears most dysfunctional. Recent policy failures, operational failures, and management failures all appear to be rooted in Ottawa not working well. In particular, results rarely match commitments and we repeatedly see issues associated with an inability—or poor ability—to design, develop, and deliver policy, program, and operational solutions to the challenges of the day in a timely, effective manner. Whether it is the failure to properly assess and plan for the downstream impact of immigration on housing or the inability to deliver just about any major project on time, in scope, and on budget, it is important to recognize that it’s not the front-line public servant that tends to over-commit and under-deliver. 

This ability to bring together the expert resources of the federal government in support of ministers to address public policy challenges is the job of our central agencies and senior civil service. If we are facing institutional, system-level challenges in the federal government’s ability to “get things done,” both the root of the problems as well as the design and implementation of solutions must necessarily implicate our central agencies.  

Within this context, the Hub’s Sean Speer and Andrew Evans recently prompted quite the debate on how to reform the federal government to improve its capacity to deliver, making the case for a “Do Tank” attached to the Prime Minister’s Office that would involve

the establishment of a National Economic Council and Domestic Policy Council comprised of relevant cabinet ministers, public servants, political staff, and possibly non-elected appointees, and supported by a dedicated PMO staff, with the mandate to strengthen policy capacity and implementation oversight on behalf of the prime minister.

Cappe, Lynch, and Mitchell critiqued the idea, noting that “it would contribute to a further centralization of the federal government and in turn undermine the principles of cabinet government and ministerial responsibility.” They further argue that if we want more effective government, the federal government needs to address five key issues:

  • Political short-termism
  • Excessive centralization in the PMO
  • Improving Government operations
  • Fixing procurement
  • Strengthening policy capacity

In reviewing this list, I found it hard to disagree with most of the various arguments and observations put forward. I also found myself asking, could the system operationalize the advice put forward, and, to the extent it tried, would it fix the core of the problems hindering effective development and delivery of key initiatives? On both of these latter questions, I remain sceptical because I am not convinced these “fixes” address the core driver of what’s not working. 

PSAC workers and supporters walk a picket line in Halifax on Monday, April 24, 2023. Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press.

As Speer notes, “A major impediment to progress on these ideas and various others is the inherent structure of the federal government and the challenge of centralized coordination on multi-departmental initiatives”. That, there, is the crux of the core problem and a longstanding issue. I recall Jocelyn Bourgon talking to middle managers in the 1990s, noting “We are all vertically accountable and horizontally challenged.”

Yet my own experience managing big, tough files is that Ottawa does not do horizontal integration well, neither across government departments, nor agencies within the same portfolio, or even, quite frankly, across different branches of the same department. It is an inherent weakness inside the “Ottawa Bubble.” 

A related yet separate problem is that Ottawa does not prioritize well. It is rare to see a government or department focused on a discrete set of clearly defined “must-do” priorities. The net result is that the “siloes” focus on their slice of the agenda and the system as a whole gets bottlenecked, particularly within central agencies (managing cabinet, decision-making, Treasury Board authorities) as well as in enabling areas such as staffing, procurement, and IT.  

Which brings me back to the idea of a “Do Tank.” Cappe, Lynch, and Mitchell argue that (1) “under the model proposed by Speer and Evans, ministers would be sidelined, while the PM’s political staff would be enormously empowered and yet entirely unaccountable,” and (2) “strikingly absent from their desired model is almost any reference to ministers or the public service”. Another approach, which Cappe, Lynch, and Mitchell advocate, is “going back to Westminster basics and having a cabinet of strong and empowered ministers.”

I personally do not see the two lines of thinking as mutually exclusive. It is perfectly conceivable to build a “Do Tank” in the PMO (or PCO for that matter) to help catalyze integrated policy development, planning, and prioritization across the broader system, working with PCO, Treasury Board, and others within the federal government to help “focus” the system on effective development and delivery of a discrete set of government priorities.  

The work of such a “Do Tank” would be to force the “system” to work in a more integrated, timely manner to address big problems and deliver. This could include, but not be limited to:

  • Bringing internal and external stakeholders together to do initial front-end policy and planning work on options, authorities, and delivery mechanisms;
  • working with the PMO and PCO to designate lead ministers and supporting machinery;
  • working with PCO to catalyze due diligence assessments within central agencies and across supporting departments, including work on cabinet authorities, legislative authorities, costing, timing, and implementation planning; and
  • maintaining line of sight and oversight of progress against plans and intended results.

Within government, the Do Tank concept and lead ministers could further be supported by the development of SWAT teams, by priority, built on an interdepartmental basis. The intent would be to ensure that the right civil servant players were assigned to the priority to facilitate effective coordination and delivery across and within supporting departments.

In short, we need to be precise on what needs fixing and find executable ways to implement the proposed solutions. Neither “Do Tanks” in the absence of supporting machinery on the civil service side of the equation, nor a return to an era of strong cabinet ministers is likely to do the trick. What is required is to fundamentally improve the system’s ability to effectively design, develop, and implement integrated solutions to complex public policy challenges within reasonable time frames.  

Wouldn’t it be great to see a four-year initiative designed, developed, and delivered in…four years?