OTTAWA Agents of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service have operated in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, the head of the domestic spy service revealed at a conference yesterday.
While CSIS has acknowledged its foreign activities in recent years, this is the first time it identified what it was doing in specific countries.
CSIS director Jim Judd said his agency must expand its ability to work abroad at a time when threats transcend national boundaries.
“We have to strengthen our capacity to operate effectively outside Canada,” Mr. Judd told the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies.
“Supporting the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan or assisting in the efforts to recover Canadian hostages in Iraq or to evacuate Canadian citizens from Lebanon represent a new departure from past operations. It is clear that we need to strengthen our future capacity to do more of this nimbly and effectively.”
Mr. Judd's remarks go to the heart of what the domestic spy service does, and how that role is changing. Sending spies abroad is, by its very nature, more risky, expensive and fraught with ethical quandaries than keeping them at home.
CSIS, formed in 1984 to keep tabs on domestic threats, has faced criticism that it “freeloads” foreign intelligence from its bigger partners, such as Britain's MI6 and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Canada's Conservative government has promised to create “a new Canadian foreign intelligence agency” but has not spelled out its plans.
CSIS insists it can do that work and that a new agency is not needed. Some CSIS officials are concerned that their budget and agents would be targeted by a new agency.
“I think CSIS is jockeying for position,” said Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto professor who organized the conference.
About four years ago, CSIS officials started saying they were making excursions abroad. They said no law prevented them from going abroad to investigate terrorists or other security threats. Robert Kaplan, the solicitor-general when CSIS was formed, said it could conduct surveillance of individuals in foreign countries, but only with the knowledge and consent of the foreign government.
The officials would not say just where they were going. But high-profile terrorism cases have revealed that CSIS agents travelled to meet Syrian military intelligence officials and took a peek inside Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in both cases to learn more about Canadian citizens being held as terrorism suspects.
Foreign trips are not being used exclusively as a means of furthering domestic investigations. CSIS yesterday acknowledged its involvement in a Canadian government team sent to Iraq this spring to free James Loney, a Christian activist whose captors later released him unharmed.
Mr. Judd also revealed yesterday that CSIS had a role in Ottawa's evacuation from Lebanon of thousands of Canadian citizens trapped by Israeli military operations. It's unclear whether CSIS was helping Canadians steer clear of Israeli forces, or whether its agents were trying to spot any Hezbollah operatives boarding the evacuation boats.
The involvement in Afghanistan would appear to be more of an ongoing operation. The agency will not say whether it is cultivating spies on the ground, or whether it is intercepting electronic signals in the air. But, however the intelligence is being gathered, it has apparently saved soldiers' lives.
“This intelligence is known to have saved lives, uncovered weapons and arms caches and disrupted planned terrorist attacks,” Jack Hooper, the agency's deputy director of operations, told a Senate committee in May.
Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of Britain's MI6, expressed puzzlement at the conference yesterday as to why Canada hadn't bolstered its foreign-intelligence-gathering capacity. Sir Richard upset the intelligence community earlier this year when he said Canada has always depended on “free intelligence handouts.”
In establishing such a service, Canada could make an important contribution to its national security interests as well as those of its major allies, said Sir Richard, who headed MI6 from 1999 until 2004.
Sir Richard pointed to Australia, saying its external spy service has achieved a high degree of sophistication and success, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Canada could and should create something specifically Canadian, which as an intelligence collector would reap the benefit of Canada's very distinct international reputation,” he said. “But it's very, very important if this project is to be embarked upon, that it has consensus across political parties and that there is the will to pursue the project over a long period of time.”
With a report from Canadian Press