First public confirmation: Director Elcock says it has become 'an integral part of the service's operations'
VANCOUVER - Canadian spies have been conducting "covert" operations in foreign countries to gather information about threats to national security, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service admitted for the first time on the weekend.
"Events have increasingly required us ... to operate abroad," CSIS director Ward Elcock told a Vancouver security conference. "As a result, working covertly abroad has become an integral part of the service's operations."
CSIS "has been conducting operations abroad for many years," Mr. Elcock said, but such work has become more important now that the most troublesome threats to Canada's security originate outside the country.
"Extremists respect no barriers, either international or moral."
The admission comes amid continuing calls in the Commons and elsewhere for Ottawa to consider creating a foreign intelligence service like the CIA to operate secretly around the world, gathering information on terrorist groups. In the past, Mr. Elcock has responded to such proposals by saying a new foreign spy service is unnecessary because CSIS is already capable of working internationally and that it gets foreign intelligence from its allies.
CSIS has never before confirmed publicly what it said this weekend -- that its agents have been running covert spy missions in other countries, and that such operations have become a central part of the agency's work.
The statement came Friday night in Mr. Elcock's speech to the Canadian Association of Security Intelligence Studies, but it was initially muddied by uncertainty over exactly what he had said. Several people in the audience of intelligence academics and government security officials thought he had said CSIS was working "covertly" abroad, but the text of his address said "overtly."
Senior officials told the National Post, however, that the version of the speech posted on the CSIS Internet site contained a typo, and that Mr. Elcock had indeed said the agency was conducting "covert" foreign operations, although they insisted that should not come as a surprise.
"Canadian efforts to collect information covertly abroad go back at least to Sir John A. Macdonald's orders to infiltrate Fenian groups in the United States."
As international Islamic terrorism has become the preoccupation of CSIS, replacing Cold War espionage and the threat of domestic extremists such as Quebec separatists, the information Canadian intelligence agents seek has been found increasingly on foreign soil.
Most of the terrorists who operate within Canada or have plotted attacks against the country are members of networks that span many countries, and they often travel widely for training or to meet with associates.
"The centre of gravity of threats to the security of Canada has shifted.... This emerging challenge needs to be met with the full force of the law, and that is what we are doing" Mr. Elcock said.
Canadian intelligence agents are strictly forbidden from spying on foreign governments outside Canada, but they are allowed to gather information on threats to national security.
The McDonald commission, which led to the creation of CSIS in 1984, recommended the agency be allowed to conduct investigations overseas, Mr. Elcock said. "If security intelligence investigations which begin in Canada must cease at the Canadian border, information and sources of information important to Canadian security will be lost" he quoted the commission as saying.
Mr. Elcock also quoted Robert Kaplan, the former solicitor-general, as saying, "There is no statutory requirement that the entire activities of the security intelligence service be performed in Canada. I think that would be unduly inhibiting."
Operating abroad lessens Canada's dependence on other security services, some of which represent unsavoury governments whose agents may be unreliable or have dubious standards.
Mr. Elcock did not name the countries in which CSIS is operating. But CSIS has said since the summer of 2001 it considers Sunni Islamic extremist groups such as al-Qaeda the main threat to Canada's security, making it possible it has launched covert missions in such countries as Pakistan, Egypt or Algeria.
Nor did he elaborate on the nature of the agency's covert international operations, except to say "the complexity of the operations we have done has evolved and will continue to evolve"
Al-Qaeda has long operated in Canada. It has sent sleeper agents and trained terrorists to Canada since 1993 and has tried to use the country as a platform for attacking the United States. There has been concern al-Qaeda might target Canada since Osama bin Laden denounced Ottawa last year for its participation in the war in Afghanistan.