Mar. 6, 2004. 01:00 AM
Foreign spy service would pose problems
Fine-tuning CSIS mandate would be a better solution

JAMES TRAVERS

National security misunderstandings are dangerous and few things are more misunderstood than Canadian spying abroad.

So little is known about this country's covert foreign operations that Defence Minister David Pratt's enthusiasm for creating a foreign intelligence service isn't getting nearly the attention it deserves. With its collective mind on many other things, Official Ottawa is nodding sagely as momentum slowly builds for a shiny new cloak-and-dagger agency.

If you'll pardon the awful pun, a plan that can't sustain much scrutiny is setting Canada up for what could be an embarrassing pratfall.

On the long and growing security to-do list, a foreign intelligence service is closer to the bottom than the top. Just for starters, it ranks far below securing our skies and seas and would do little in the foreseeable future to make citizens safer or Uncle Sam more confident in a northern neighbour.

Still, in a knee-jerk post-Sept. 11 universe where politicians want to be seen to be doing everything possible to thwart terrorism, a foreign intelligence service has no trouble finding disciples. A new service, they argue, would make Canada more secure and a better ally by stepping up its search for threats in the world's dark corners.

It would be a compelling argument except that's what the Canadian Security Intelligence Service does now and not what a foreign intelligence service would do in the future. It's an important point and one that needs to be fully grasped long before a country that can't or won't adequately fund its military spends $100 million on something it may not need.

Even a superficial scan of the CSIS mandate makes it abundantly clear that the 20-year-old spy agency is expected to defend Canada at home and away from threats that sweep the spectrum from sabotage to subversion. Those operations are limited less by law than by costs, risks and rewards.

What CSIS doesn't do, or, more accurately, doesn't do intentionally, is spy on friends. While it gratefully collects whatever comes its way during threat-related investigations, it is not preoccupied with gathering economic and political information.

That's what the British were doing when they were so awkwardly caught spying on United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and that's largely what a foreign service would add to Canada's modest intelligence portfolio. It's an addition that should be weighed thoughtfully and debated fully before it falls to the security bottom line.

Along with the very considerable cost, creating a new agency would be a long process leading to an uncertain objective. Estimates vary but it would take at least a decade before a stand-alone foreign service could be expected to show significant, credible results.

Even more worrying, it would inevitably compete for human and financial resources, potentially jeopardizing the primary national security provider, first, by making CSIS weaker and, then, by creating the kind of two-agency confusion that made the U.S. so vulnerable.

A simpler, more flexible solution would be to fine-tune the CSIS mandate to clarify its responsibility for foreign operations and, if a clear and pressing need is established, to expand its intelligence gathering scope well beyond violent threats to national security.

Instead of creating a Canadian CIA, the federal government could build its own singl e-agency model. With clever carpentry, it could begin simplifying a security apparatus that already has too many players, too much duplication and, in some cases, too little public oversight.

A broader mandate would give CSIS flexibility to adjust its focus and response to the kaleidoscope of changing events. And it would protect the lead security agency from the poaching that saw too much senior, experienced staff migrate to other federal departments when the appetite for intelligence gathering soared in the aftermath of the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.

Another, less obvious, benefit would be to force at least a temporary truce in a too-typical national capital turf war. From the foreign affairs department to the powerful Privy Council office, Ottawa mandarins are jostling for a bigger piece of an intelligence business enjoying boom times.

As preoccupying and entertaining as that is for bureaucrats, it is not necessarily in the national interest. The combination of too many security priorities and too few dollars demands policy triage. Those entrusted with keeping citizens safe need to look hard at what is needed most, not what might be nice.

As Senator Colin Kenny's security committee constantly reminds cabinet, the gaps in Canadian defences are wide and obvious.

Ports are alarmingly open, airports are much less secure than they appear to poked-and-prodded passengers and the armed forces are stretched too thin for peacekeeping, let alone peacemaking.

Those are urgent security needs that most Canadians understand. It would be foolish, even dangerous, to lose sight of them in the fog of misunderstanding over who spies for Canada in faraway places.

Additional articles by James Travers


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