A British spymaster once known simply as "C" says it's high time Canada stopped mooching overseas intelligence from its allies and started to build a foreign spying agency of its own.
"Canada has always been dependent on the free intelligence handouts that it receives from its close allies, notably the U.S. and the U.K.," Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6 from 1999 to 2004, recently told a University of Toronto audience.
". . . My own view is that it is time that Canada faced up to its international responsibilities and created its own foreign intelligence capability."
He added, "I strongly urge the new Canadian government to give this matter urgent and thorough consideration."
Whether Canada should create a foreign spy service, along the lines of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency or Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6), has been an on-again, off-again debate for decades. The new Conservative government has vowed to create a foreign intelligence agency, although it has yet to reveal plans.
Sir Richard made these remarks to about 100 academics at the University of Toronto, which he visited to give a lecture last month. Now the master of Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge, he does not give interviews, although he agreed to send The Globe and Mail the text of his public remarks.
Like all heads of MI6, Sir Richard was known as "C" while he held that job. As he retired from the post, criticism surfaced that he gave British Prime Minister Tony Blair intelligence that overstated Iraq's military capabilities before the U.S.-led invasion.
It remains very rare for a former head of MI6 to speak about intelligence matters, especially another country's security agencies.
"It was startlingly blunt," said Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto professor who attended Sir Richard's lecture.
Prof. Wark, who specializes in security issues, said that Western countries almost universally have foreign intelligence agencies that are separate from their domestic ones. In fact, he said that a former "C" privately urged Canada to do more overseas spying 40 years ago.
Yet the request has always met resistance. Today, CSIS seems cool to the idea, as a new agency would probably deplete its ranks and budget much the same way the RCMP's national-security service was raided when CSIS was created in the 1980s.
CSIS officials acknowledge that Canada is a net beneficiary of intelligence-trading with foreign countries. But they say they are sending more agents abroad.
"We do collect security intelligence overseas. As long as it relates to Canadian security, we can collect it anywhere in the world," spokeswoman Barbara Campion said. "And we do."
But some of the known CSIS forays indicate that Canadians may lack an appetite for the moral quandaries of foreign spying.
For example, the Arar commission has raised questions about the propriety of CSIS agents visiting Syrian officials when three Canadian citizens were jailed there in brutal conditions.
And a Federal Court judge recently ordered CSIS to stop sending agents to Guantanamo Bay, where a Canadian teenager is being held. The judge found it unconstitutional for CSIS to visit the U.S. military base, which disregards international rules for the humane treatment of prisoners.