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Conservative's foreign spy agency promise in limbo
Andrew Mayeda
CanWest News Service

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper's election promise to create a foreign-intelligence agency appears to be on the backburner, despite calls from Canada's spy agency to increase activity abroad.

Intelligence experts say the creation of a foreign-spy agency along the lines of the CIA or Britain's MI6 would be a politically risky, costly undertaking that would require training operatives from scratch and take years to implement.

That might explain why Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day has remained relatively quiet on the issue as his department tackles corrections reform and works to implement the recommendations of the O'Connor inquiry into Maher Arar.

Day's office insists the minister is pushing ahead with the file, but offers scant details. Officials with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and Communications Security Establishment acknowledge being consulted on the issue in the year since the Conservatives took power, but won't elaborate.

"We're still working on increased capacity of foreign intelligence abroad, but it's still at the early stages," said Melisa Leclerc, a spokeswoman for Day. "I'm not saying we'll announce something shortly on that, but it's in the pipe."

The cautious tone contrasts with the Conservatives' bold promise in their 2006 election platform to create a: "Canadian Foreign Intelligence Agency to effectively gather intelligence overseas, independently counter threats before they reach Canada, and increase allied intelligence operations."

Last summer, Day hedged on the scale of the plan, saying he would also consider the cheaper option of expanding CSIS's mandate.

Certainly, the Conservatives would not be the first governing party to float the prospect of a foreign intelligence agency before backing down. The former Liberal government of Jean Chretien studied the creation of a new agency after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but opted to rely on Canada's existing intelligence links.

Creating a new foreign-intelligence agency would be a "mega-project" that could take a decade or more to get up and running, said Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University.

Top-notch foreign-spy agencies such as Britain's MI6 can train operatives for years before deploying them to foreign countries. Operatives require a range of skills, including fluency in multiple languages, knowledge of other cultures, and the various aspects of "espionage tradecraft."

"It takes 16 operatives to do 24/7 surveillance on a single target, whether the target is sitting in Ottawa or Dubai. By the way, they all have to be, how shall I say, invisible not only to the target but to local authorities," said Rudner.

Unfortunately, the skills required by foreign-intelligence operatives and analysts are scarce in Canada, he added.

Experts generally agree on the need to expand Canada's overseas intelligence gathering, said Rudner. They point to the emergence of terrorist networks that span the globe, and the need to tailor intelligence to threats specific to Canada, such as attacks on its energy infrastructure.

As well, the O'Connor inquiry highlighted the risks of relying on intelligence from other countries. The inquiry found, for example, CSIS did not adequately assess information on Arar shared by Syrian agents.

Nevertheless, a foreign-intelligence agency might be a tough sell to the Canadian public, noted Rudner. First, taxpayers might balk at the costs. And some Canadians may feel uncomfortable with the ruthless, clandestine nature of such an agency.

"Why should Canada be out there stealing secrets from foreign governments and other organizations? Many Canadians will say, 'Yes, it's the real world, it's realpolitik.' Other Canadians will blanch at this.'"

What many Canadians don't realize, however, is the degree to which the government already gathers intelligence abroad.

The Communications Security Establishment intercepts foreign signals in support of Canada's national defence and foreign policy, while the Canadian Forces gather military-related intelligence in countries such as Afghanistan.

CSIS, meanwhile, has been increasingly candid about its activities abroad. In an October speech, CSIS director Jim Judd revealed CSIS agents have supported Canadian Forces in Afghanistan and assisted in the rescue of Canadian hostages from Iraq and the evacuation of Canadian citizens from Lebanon, calling those activities a "departure from past operations."

He also lobbied for more government support. "While we have personnel operating abroad for some time it is obvious that we need to further build our capacity to function outside Canada more effectively."

Under its governing legislation, CSIS is authorized to gather foreign intelligence on threats to Canada's national security.

But some officials have questioned whether the agency is pushing the boundaries of its mandate.

CSIS director-general Eva Plunkett said in an interview last spring she had discovered "policy vacuums" related to the agency's foreign activities.

Ottawa Citizen

© CanWest News Service 2007

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