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Gathering Intelligence:
The challenges of the Communications Security Establishment

by Paul Crookall

SIGINT – or signals intelligence – refers to the foreign electronic emissions collected by the Communications Security Establishment. SIGINT is used to produce the reporting that responds to Canadian government intelligence requirements.

SIGINT has a long and noble history. Cracking the Enigma Code was a key to victory in World War II. Listening in on the Soviets was important in the Cold War. With the War on Terror, (or terror’s war on us) it is, perhaps, even more important to have our ears on the airwaves.

John Adams’ office is located in the old CBC building on Bronson Ave, with a great view of the city – except the view can’t be enjoyed. The Venetian blinds are closed to the regulation 45-degree angle to prevent conversations from being visually intercepted by someone with a telescope from a distant building or a surveillance aircraft.

We asked the Chief about his mandate and transforming CSE to meet the new threat environment.

We live in a complex global threat environment. We share many security, health and natural events. The world is flat and it is networked.

The brutality of 9/11 changed the security business forever. We must work together to defeat those who wish us harm. The internet is now a major theatre of operations. Terrorists use it as a principal tool, to research, recruit, plan, communicate and coordinate. We use it to gather intelligence. We have to master the internet or pay the price.

The Communications Security Establishment mandate is to provide foreign intelligence in accordance with government priorities. We are very much focused on security issues, such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation and cyber threats. We help protect the electronic information and infrastructure critical to the operation of government and defend government networks and communications. We also provide assistance to federal law enforcement and security agencies in the performance of their lawful duties.

Our goal is not to control the world, but to be on top of it, to exploit the information available to defend the world.

We don’t often see stories like “no terrorist attacks today, thanks to CSE diligence.” Are there successes you can talk about?

In most cases, we can’t take the credit. Generally we don’t want people to know we were involved – it discloses our strategies, our methods, our capabilities.

Transforming the CSE
For decades, we were focused on one adversary, the Soviet Union, with all our eyes and ears. When the Wall fell, the government’s focus shifted to politics and world economics – collecting on the “peace dividend” by reducing military and intelligence spending.

Since the terror attacks in 2001, we have had to ramp back up. It was a rude awakening, we had to re-invent CSE. The focus moved to counterterrorism, support to military operations, defending against cyber threats and tracking proliferation.

We had to shift entirely from expertise in understanding the post-Cold War world to understanding rare dialects from remote regions of the globe; from traditional government communications sources to the internet; from a known enemy to one that hides in civilian populations and is like finding a needle in the haystack, dealing mostly with terrorists – loosely knit collections of people who do not want peace.

Three key factors enabled the change: (1) The Anti-Terrorism Act changed the rules, for example, from barring us from listening to conversations coming in to or going out of Canada to allowing us to follow the conversation of a foreign entity located abroad, even if one end went into or out of Canada. (2) The National Security Policy provides a framework. And (3) an increase in funding provides the capacity to meet the expanded mandate.

The “Five Eyes” (Canada, US, UK, Australia, NZ) have cooperated for over sixty years in sharing intelligence. Recently, we’ve expanded our networks and increased our partnerships with other agencies. We work more intensively with the uniforms; we provide direct support to Canadian Forces deployed abroad, particularly in Afghanistan. We work much more closely with the tactical side now.

It was quite a challenge to staff up quickly, (to 1,600 from 900), to train and develop while still getting the job done. We recruited from diverse communities, those who know the culture and language of our adversaries. We did a great job, but now these people are also in demand in the private sector. To keep them, we have to focus on providing challenging jobs.

We also have to retain the corporate knowledge we have. I think many will stay, as long as they’re having as much fun as I am. Some will leave, but at the same time, the Boomer professors will be leaving universities. Their potential successors are part of the same group I want to recruit to become expert mathematicians, linguists and programmers.

We will have to be very adept at recruitment and retention. As a separate employer, we have some options.

The other challenge we have is diversity. Too many of our people have worked only in this organization. We’ll have to bring in people laterally at all levels. And we need to get some of our people to get out and diversify, to understand government at large and bring that back with them when they return. That’s hard to do. Our people find the work they do at CSE far more interesting.

We operate in real time. If we gather some information, with the push of a button that information can be in the hands of operatives on the other side of the world by the time your finger is off the button. Diplomatic and military staff will act on our information, so we’ve got to be right. If our analysis is wrong, the response has often already occurred before we can make a correction.

We are told to be imaginative and bold, but don’t make a mistake. We provide intelligence in real time to operations in Afghanistan. The information we gather, if accurate, can provide the tipping point for the success of an operation – or if inaccurate could have serious consequences. But mistakes have the potential to be fairly massive and the consequences could be disastrous. The reality is, they are just humans working with bits and pieces of information.

How do you deal with wrong information or inaccurate conclusions?

To err is human – if there is a perfect human, he or she has not been recruited by CSE. Mistakes are accepted if they are made while working to deliver on the mandate.

Communications is a huge challenge, even though we are not a large agency. We can’t communicate enough with our team. Putting so much time into communications can be frustrating, and impatience to drive the agenda can lead to dictating solutions. We need to manage our three-fold mandate as one, to always think corporately, to use the enablers.

We wrestle with things like talking with you, the media. Also, staff can’t talk about work with their friends and family. Being in the shadows is not a bad place to be, because nobody knows you’re there. My colleagues downtown say, “It’s great that you’re here, that you’re doing what you’re doing.” But, although they don’t want to know how we do it, they do want us to be accountable. And we must be.

Before, when we were hidden inside the Department of National Defence, our budget was not obvious, or significant within it. Now that we are out in the open, with a much larger budget, we are open to review. Our higher profile has made us much more accountable.

We don’t teach management enough in the public service. Few of the technical expertise areas teach leadership. Experts rise to the top of their field, then become managers. They are leaders in their technical field, but unfortunately they lack the techniques that will enable them to become managers – and that, to me, is a failing within the public service at large.

They don’t teach management in most of the professional disciplines. People don’t always realize that management is a profession in its own right, which requires specialized training and attention to how it is performed.

Technicians like cut and dried solutions. But in management it is much more about the management of ambiguity.

I can’t imagine a more relevant and fascinating organization. I have 46 years of service in DND and the Coast Guard, and I am still having fun. We are proud of our contribution, of our ability to adjust to a dramatically changing situation. We are doing well, and are getting even better.