Get our FREE newsletter.
Join now!

‘A long way to go’: Canada’s catching up but still lags behind intelligence community peers

Podcast & Video

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with University of Ottawa professor Thomas Juneau and Carleton University professor Stephanie Carvin who have co-authored a new book that is out and available to be read as of today, December 7.

The book, which draws on a number of interviews with current and retired intelligence and national security practitioners, helps to paint an unprecedented picture of how intelligence analysis feeds into Canadian public policy. It is a sophisticated and nuanced look at a key aspect of security intelligence that is often ignored or misunderstood. 

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

SEAN SPEER: My first question is a big picture question. What’s the state of Canada’s intelligence capacity? How does it compare to jurisdictions of a similar size and stature?

THOMAS JUNEAU: Well, the main argument that we make in the book is that the Canadian intelligence analysis community, which is the focus of the book, tells us that Canada has improved a lot in the last 10 to 20 years. But it is still not where it should be. It is still not as good as it could be. 

How does it compare to other allies? Not favourably, though, when you look at other countries like the U.S., the UK, or Australia, they also have challenges in terms of connecting intelligence analysis with policymaking. I would say they do a bit better than us, but it’s important not to dramatize the problems on this side.

STEPHANIE CARVIN: I agree with that. I think that in Canada, we tend to do really well at producing high-level strategic analysis. Because we don’t have foreign human intelligence collection—we don’t, for instance, have a Canadian CIA or a Canadian MI6—and so we don’t really have the kinds of information that allow us to do the fine-grained, tactical analysis that some of our allies do. 

But high-level analysis suits where we are in the world and our vague foreign policy agenda as it were, as well. I would agree with Thomas, we have seen a lot of improvements in recent years. But there’s still a long way for us to go.

SEAN SPEER: When we think and talk about intelligence, a crucial insight of the book is that it occurs across a continuum—from intelligence gathering all the way to the processes for integrating intelligence into day-to-day policymaking. Maybe it’s worth unpacking how you’re defining intelligence and thinking about the question of intelligence in the context of this book.

THOMAS JUNEAU: That’s an important point. So, as you said, intelligence is a very wide enterprise that goes from collection to analysis to dissemination. There are massive, different lines of activity around that. There’s the corporate side as well as the financial, legal, ethical, and review and oversight dimensions. Intelligence, like any other government activity, can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The focus of the book is on one of those aspects, specifically intelligence analysis. We do touch on other aspects, like review and oversight, as they bear on analysis, but they are not the main focus.

Even more specifically than that, there are other books on intelligence analysis, not in the Canadian context but in the American or other national contexts, that look at methodologies of analysis, for example. That’s also not our focus. Our focus is specifically on how does intelligence analysis in Canada integrate itself or not into broader processes of policy and decision-making?

STEPHANIE CARVIN: I would say that the reason we wanted to focus specifically on analysis is that while you can collect all the information in the world and you can have these huge intelligence apparatuses in your country, if that’s not feeding into effective policymaking, what’s called decision advantages—in other words, if it’s not helping your political leaders make better decisions—, then there’s not really much of a point. 

There’s not been a lot written about that relationship between intelligence analysis and policymaking in Canada or, I would say, internationally. Even though the book is about Canada, which is a pretty small case, we are actually getting a lot of interest from other countries as well, because our book is unique in that we talked to 70 people in the intelligence communities as part of our research. That’s a huge number for any kind of book on an intelligence or national security topic, but also on how that relationship works. We do some comparisons with the United States and other countries as well.

But what makes our book unique is that it focuses on the key question: you have all these James Bonds running around—are they actually helping you make a better decision?

SEAN SPEER: Some readers will be familiar, for instance, with the American president’s daily security briefing that we heard so much about over the past 20 years, including the fact that President Trump, by all accounts, basically dropped that daily process. Is that what you have in mind when we’re talking about the integration of intelligence into the policymaking process? Or is it something deeper and more fundamental?

STEPHANIE CARVIN: We’d say it’s definitely something deeper and more fundamental. Like the President’s Daily Briefing, there is a Canadian equivalent that’s been developed over the years. But one of the interesting storylines that we have in the book is the way that the intelligence community has had to adapt its products to facilitate that deeper integration into policymaking. For example, when we talked to people about the early 2000s, you had an intelligence community that was producing 40-page assessments that were very dense and very academic. No one has time to read that. I hate using the word academic. We’re academics ourselves after all. But the point is it was intelligence writing for the sake of the analyst. It wasn’t necessarily focused on the policy consumer. 

Stephen Harper really did have that interesting impact on that relationship between intelligence and policy.

So, one of the things we’ve looked at is how over time, in order to integrate these kinds of products into policymaking, intelligence analysts had to adapt and adjust their content and how it was presented. What we found is that policymakers really like short. They love short. The shorter, the better. Secondly, they love oral presentations. They also like something that’s called placemats, which are oftentimes maps of the world and have little arrows of things that are happening. 

What some of our intelligence units found was that they would then inspire people to think, “Oh, that seems like a really interesting thing,” then they would actually pull more information about a certain topic. That was the story of the adaptation of products over the last two decades. It shows how the intelligence community has learned to try and create a consumer base for the analytical products that it has generated.

THOMAS JUNEAU: One of the key points, in addition to the format part that Stephanie mentioned, is the issue of understanding how to tailor products to the needs of clients. You asked in your question how to integrate analysis into policymaking. An absolutely brilliant piece of analysis on Russian influence operations is completely useless if it does not answer a specific question that a deputy minister somewhere needs on that day and in that hour. If it is brilliant and answers yesterday’s needs, it is useless. That is something that is very easy to say, especially from the outside, but in practice, it’s extremely difficult to do. It is very difficult for intelligence analysts to understand what the needs of their consumers are, and then to respond to them in the optimal format, as Stephanie just said. 

But answering those really specific questions, you need to know your clients. Who’s going to read this product? And to what end? In what broader decision-making process is my analysis going to be integrated and useful? What does my client know and not know? If my client is already extremely knowledgeable on Russia, then my product may have less potential to add something new. If my client is new to the position and knows very little, then I could possibly bring in more. But you have to know these things, and that is very difficult. It’s a knowledge base on your clients that the intelligence community in Canada has improved a lot in the last 10 to 20 years in having, but still has a long way to go.

SEAN SPEER: That resonates with me, too. I worked for Stephen Harper’s office for about five years or so. What you just described would apply to the government as a whole but of course the intelligence apparatus in particular. 

STEPHANIE CARVIN: I would say that Stephen Harper is a really interesting case. One of the things that explain this low-starting point in the 2000s through the improvement that we’ve seen is actually Stephen Harper. He was the first prime minister to actively consume and engage with intelligence and then ask questions. He would read products, and send them back with writing on them, which is a very terrifying thing when you’re an analyst. 

What we found is a trickle-down effect. If people knew that the prime minister was reading intelligence, the people around him would read the intelligence, and then the people under them would read the intelligence, it had this really interesting effect down to the analyst level. It started with the Harper government and has carried through now because the intelligence community did respond to the interest that he had, and that has carried through to the Trudeau Government as well. But Stephen Harper really did have that interesting impact on that relationship between intelligence and policy.

SEAN SPEER: That’s interesting. Different politicians have different interests, of course. I remember that he was really interested in the government’s debt management strategy—basically, the composition of bond issuances between short- and long-term. He always used to ask these questions which required Department of Finance officials to produce reams of analysis. We used to joke that the serious wonks in the department were so excited because it was the first time that anyone was asking about their work. The prime minister has asked you to provide some different alternatives. This is the big time. 

STEPHANIE CARVIN: It’s our moment! I think to a large extent that was true in the intelligence community as well. For the first time, someone was actually interested in the kinds of things that they were producing. When they weren’t meeting the expectations, there was a real pressure to improve and improve quickly. Because suddenly there is this interest that just simply hadn’t existed before. That was a big finding in our book.

SEAN SPEER: One topic that the book covers is the issue of “policy literacy.” What does it mean and why is it relevant for the integration of intelligence analysis into policymaking?

THOMAS JUNEAU: It’s easy to say to intelligence analysts, “Write for policy clients. You exist as a producer of a service that needs to satisfy the needs of your consumers.” In practice, though, you need your intelligence community in general, and your analysts individually, to understand these clients and to have a client mentality. That’s really easy to say, and it’s really hard to do. 

As much as there has been a fair bit of improvement in the last few years, the general policy literacy in the intelligence community in terms of understanding how Ottawa works and understanding the role and needs of someone like you in the Prime Minister’s Office is still low. It’s still not where it should be, despite real improvements in the last 10 to 20 years. And a lot of the book revolves around that point.

SEAN SPEER: The policy literacy point is fascinating. In terms of the intelligence analysts producing the briefing materials for a prime minister or cabinet minister, how connected is he or she from the intelligence collection and gathering? Are they different people? 

STEPHANIE CARVIN: I talk a little bit about this. Every chapter has a case study at the end. One chapter looks at the Privy Council Office’s Intelligence Assessment Secretariat. There’s one on the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command in the Department of National Defence. There’s also one on the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. My chapter looks a lot at CSIS. 

For years, one of the big concerns was that the intelligence analysts, those who produced the briefing materials, weren’t collectors. They weren’t intelligence officers. There was a huge concern therefore that somehow intelligence analysts would actually leak things out of the building, and they were kept separate as a result. What’s really interesting is that we have seen in the United States, the CIA, move to a model that really is much more integrating intelligence analysis working at desks and the collectors in the field. They do have that better insight. We are seeing that in some of the Canadian intelligence community as well to better inform that. But that’s part of the maturing of the Canadian national security intelligence community. We’re now seeing much more integration of intelligence analysts with the desks themselves.

Canada has neglected national security.

I was a former intelligence analyst. One of the key challenges I had was not knowing who my clients were. It wasn’t just the fact that I myself was ignorant; the people who are intelligence analysts are very smart. But the organizations themselves don’t always make it clear who they want you to be writing for. In some cases, you’re told to write to help support collection. In some cases, you’re told to write for the executives, so that they can then go off and brief the prime minister or whoever. And in some cases, you’re told to be writing for external clients. Really, you should be doing all three, but you need different skills to do that, and to be able to do that for different times. That’s another thing that the community needs to work towards is to develop that training and support. 

As Thomas said, one of the big things that is missing is policy literacy. I will say as well, there is intelligence illiteracy in the policy community. A lot of people don’t know what intelligence is: they don’t know how to use it and they don’t know what it is. We heard a number of stories, including from people who had served in PMOs, that one day, someone would just come and dump things on their desk. They have no idea what it is, they have no idea where it comes from, they have no idea how it is collected, and they don’t know how to engage with it. 

One of the most important things that a policymaker could do is challenge the intelligence. Not just to accept it, you want pushback as well. Not necessarily “Who did you get this from?” but, “Why did you come to this conclusion? Were there other competing sources?” It’s crucial for policymakers to ask questions and to engage with them. I think that’s an important development we need to see more of in Canada as well. That active, productive conversation which creates a useful tension between intelligence and policymaking in Canada, and that’s something I think we would like to see as well. 

SEAN SPEER: The two of you have written elsewhere that Canada underinvests and underprioritizes its security and intelligence capacities due to various reasons, including the relative safety of its geography, dependence on the United States, and so on. How can Canada strengthen its capacity for security intelligence, both for the purposes of informing policymaking but also advancing and protecting Canadian interests?

THOMAS JUNEAU: That’s a really interesting question. One point that we’ve made together and separately in stuff that we’ve written on our own is that Canada has neglected national security, defense, and foreign policy because we could. We’re sheltered on top of the United States. We’ve benefited immensely from the relationship from a security perspective and from an economic perspective. We’ve essentially been able to neglect foreign policy, national security, defense policy, and we haven’t paid a price for that. We neglected it because we could, and I think different governments have been guilty of that to varying extents, but I think all of them have. It’s not a partisan thing, and it’s not a bad thing in the sense that we could neglect it, so we did. 

But over the next few years, as Canada’s posture somewhat deteriorates in relation with the U.S., massive problems with China, revanchist Russia, right-wing extremism, continuing Jihadist terrorism, and so on, at some point, the cost of that neglect will rise. The big question though, beyond that diagnostic, is how do you do change that? 

And to that, I don’t have obvious answers. It’s very easy for academics like us, from our offices or our basement, to say, “Well, we should be more serious, and we should invest more in intelligence and law enforcement, or we should reform our hollowed out and demoralized Foreign Ministry.” Okay, but how do you do that? How do you push the system to do that, when currently the incentives are not there? At some point, I’m not sure what the answer is, except to say that the more time passes with us neglecting that, the steeper the price will eventually be in the future.

STEPHANIE CARVIN: I think the most important things we can do, building on what he said, is we need to decide what our foreign policy priorities are, and not in a vague way but in a very specific, concrete way. This is a hard conversation to have because it necessarily requires hard choices. But that’s my first piece of advice to our new Foreign Minister. 

The second thing we can do from an intelligence perspective is, once we have a good idea of what our foreign policy priorities are, then make sure we Canadianize our intelligence collection and analysis. In other words, we are presently a net consumer of intelligence; we take on a lot of foreign intelligence for the country. 

But when we get that information, are we taking it at face value, or are we critically assessing it? Are we coming up with our own views? Our allies actually want us to have our own views and to make contributions to the conversations that are taking place right now. Right now, we’re a bit of a wallflower. We show up to meetings, we don’t really say very much or contribute very much. I think having a better idea of our priorities and having a better lens in which to view the information that we’re collecting through this intelligence apparatus and assessing them—in effect having a more Canadian lens—will not only improve our foreign policy and national security but also make us better allies in the long-run. 

SEAN SPEER: Well, this has been a fascinating conversation, Thomas and Stephanie. The book is Intelligence Analysis and Policymaking: The Canadian Experience, published by Stanford University Press. I’m sure our readers will be keen to read it after today’s conversation. Thank you so much.