Espionage still a danger to Cda.: CSIS watchdog
OTTAWA The federal watchdog over Canada's spy agency is warning that the current obsession with terrorism shouldn't blind CSIS to another danger: good old-fashioned espionage.
The threat of foreign powers pilfering sensitive secrets likely has grown, not diminished, in recent years, says Eva Plunkett, inspector general of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
"Everyone thinks of the threat now in terms of terrorism," Plunkett said in an interview. "But I think there are threats on other fronts as well."
During the Cold War, CSIS and its forerunner, the RCMP Security Service, focused almost exclusively on protecting Canada from espionage and subversion, mainly from Soviet Bloc spies.
And even in pre-Sept. 11 days, the service devoted as much as 40 per cent of its resources to traditional threats.
Plunkett acts as the Public Safety minister's eyes and ears concerning CSIS and prepares an annual assessment of the intelligence service's adherence to the law and ministerial directives.
She has full access to secret CSIS files, giving her an overview of the service's attempts to ward off threats.
"They are constantly trying to work on all fronts," Plunkett said. "And trying to get the right balance in how they spread out their resources."
In a recent speech, CSIS director Jim Judd emphasized that the service's most significant operational priority is unquestionably terrorism.
"We continue, of course, significant operations against foreign espionage, foreign interference, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and, on occasion, transnational organized crime," Judd said.
"But the pre-eminent concern remains terrorism."
In a television interview earlier this month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is privy to high-level intelligence, said the people "who destroyed the World Trade Center would equally like to destroy this country."
At the same time, Harper seems conscious of other threats. Last June he pressed Paul Martin to address Chinese espionage, demanding to know if the then-prime minister had raised the issue with officials in Beijing.
Some have questioned the need for Canada to become a full-fledged player in the world of global spying.
During the recent election campaign, however, the Conservatives promised to expand the country's foreign-intelligence gathering capabilities.
CSIS operates abroad, but is legally limited to collecting information about security threats such as a possible terrorist attack.
Plunkett paints a picture of a Canadian intelligence service trying to cover a variety of bases.
"The whole question of whether the threat is real, I have absolutely no question," she said. "The threat is very real. And, as I say, on several fronts."
With agencies such as CSIS largely preoccupied with terrorism, it has likely been "a growth time for some of the other threat areas" such as spying operations,, she indicated.
CSIS says increasing global competition has prompted many governments, including countries considered friendly to Canada, to try to illicitly acquire economic and technological information, from contract details to computer databases.
The intelligence service adds that because Canada is a world leader in many technology-intensive fields - including aerospace, biotechnology, chemicals, communications, energy, information technology and mining - Canadian companies have been targeted by foreign governments.
CSIS received a considerable boost in funding following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. But Plunkett notes it takes five years to train people to the point where they are fully operational.
"You don't grow an intelligence officer overnight."
Therefore, she said, one of CSIS's challenges will be to ensure it has the personnel necessary to replace the next wave of retirees.
Overall, Plunkett believes CSIS is responding well to the range of threats.
"I think that they're doing a good job," she said. "But they have a formidable job ahead of them."
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