OTTAWA -- The Conservative campaign promise to launch a foreign intelligence service has quietly vanished from sight, government sources say.
The plan, announced during the last election as part of the party's ambitious security agenda, is not entirely dead. But it has dropped well down the list of government priorities in this minority Parliament, the sources say.
The idea of a new service to spy abroad faces opposition from many senior officials in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and other existing security agencies, the sources say.
Moreover, CSIS has convinced Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day that it is able to do more spying abroad than it has in the past without the trouble of asking for parliamentary approval to start up a new agency.
The sources cannot be identified because they were not authorized to speak with reporters.
In the last election, the Conservatives accused the Liberal government of gutting security agencies, thus leaving Canada vulnerable to terrorists and other threats.
A Canadian foreign intelligence agency, similar to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, would allow the government to "independently counter threats before they reach Canada," the Conservative platform said. In fact, CSIS can legally gather intelligence abroad related to the security of Canada, according to Margaret Bloodworth, the national security adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
CSIS was created as a domestic agency to replace the scandal-ridden Security Service of the RCMP in 1984. Its primary function at the time was to catch Soviet-bloc spies. However, a little-used section of the CSIS Act allows it to operate abroad at the request of either the foreign or defence ministers to gather security intelligence to protect Canadians. This allows CSIS operatives, for example, to provide tactical intelligence about the Taliban to the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan and to help locate the abductors of the Canadian peace activists who were held hostage in Iraq.
What CSIS cannot do, however, is go abroad to collect political or economic intelligence, Ms. Bloodworth told a Senate committee yesterday.
"Personally, I put a priority on security intelligence" over economic or political intelligence, she said.
Liberal Senator Wilfred Moore said it might be in Canada's interest to collect intelligence abroad to trade for intelligence from the U.S. or other allies.
But Ms. Bloodworth said it might not be in Canada's interest to share economic and political intelligence with allies. "It's for us."
She noted that the start-up costs for a new spy agency would be high. But she would not disclose whether she favoured a new agency, saying her advice is only for Mr. Harper's ears. Officials are hesitant to discuss it publicly, but an idea that frequently surfaces in government circles is whether Canada might want to spy on friendly countries to discern their political and economic objectives during trade negotiations or similar bilateral dealings. Military allies can be economic rivals, they note.
Thus, Canadian trade officials assumed the Americans tried to spy on them during negotiations for the free-trade agreement, and took counter-espionage precautions.