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Keeping Canada safe
The Leader-Post



When you are in a tough neighbourhood, you are wise to protect yourself by constantly looking around. Information can keep you out of trouble.

What applies to individuals applies to countries, too. The whole world is a little more dangerous than a few years ago and some neighbourhoods are much more threatening than others -- the Middle East, for example.

So one of the most important elements in keeping Canada and its citizens safe is up-to-date and accurate information about potential overseas threats -- what is called "foreign intelligence".

There is a myth that Canada does not collect information on other countries. Not so. Since at least the Second World War, Canada has listened to other countries' radio and cable communications. As well, the Department of Foreign Affairs assiduously collects overseas data in the normal course of its work and has interviewed immigrants and business travelers since the 1950s. (In his memoirs, a Saskatchewan-born Canadian military attache tells fascinating stories of discretely watching Czech military exercises -- and of being chased and harassed by Czech counterespionage officers before his diplomatic credentials were produced and checked).

More recently, the existing Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) -- a counterespionage and counterterrorism organization -- has

acknowledged collecting information overseas, though there is a peculiar legal restriction on what CSIS can do: it can collect information from anywhere about threats to Canada; it can gather information on threats to other states only if it comes across this information within Canada.

At that, Canada has been accused of "freeloading" off other western intelligence services. This winter's election campaign saw the Conservatives promise to expand Canada's ability to collect foreign intelligence. There are two broad options:

- Expand the legal mandate, and resources, of CSIS to permit more overseas intelligence work, or;

- Start an entirely new intelligence-gathering organization.

There are several knocks against the "start-up" option. The first is that history teaches us that new intelligence organizations have to cast a wide net in the course of recruiting and, to a certain

extent, must hire whomever they can get. In the past that has led to hostile powers planting agents inside new intelligence services in order to collect sensitive information. It is not difficult to imagine terrorist organizations doing the same.

Second, there are the inevitable delays that would occur in organizing a brand new foreign intelligence agency, getting a legal mandate, finding quarters and "staffing up". Given the global terrorist threat lurking out there, do we have time to do this?

Finally, there is the nature of bureaucratic organizations. If it's hard to move important information round a single government agency, then getting it to other agencies and political decision-makers is even more difficult -- as illustrated by FBI

management's shocking failure to act on the suspicions of its own field agents before 9/11.

How Australia, a country similar in size to Canada, handles security and intelligence is

instructive. Postwar, it set up parallel counterespionage and intelligence-gathering agencies, reporting to the attorney-general and foreign affairs minister, respectively. Oversight to curtail potential abuses of their considerable powers to watch citizens has evolved over the years.

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service does not blanket the world, but concentrates on areas of prime interest to Australia, notably the Middle East and south Pacific, including Indonesia and the shaky mini-states around it.

Both of Australia's agencies, like CSIS, are basically sophisticated research organizations that give information and advice to government; they are not law-enforcement organizations with the responsibility t o produce information that will stand up in court. The public's failure to understand the role of CSIS has led to a great deal of uninformed finger-pointing and criticism over the unsuccessful prosecution of two Canadian Sikhs for the 1984 bombing of an Air India 747.

Foreign intelligence-gathering is a grim business that sometimes involves unsavory characters and absorbing casualties. But that is a price we must pay for trying to keep Canada safe.

"When it comes right down to it, Canadians must decide if we have the stomach -- and the money -- for this kind of work," Paule Gauthier, chairwoman of the Security Intelligence Review Committee -- the government's top intelligence watchdog -- said last year.

"All I can say is, if we don't have the nerve for it now, we'd better develop it quickly."

© The Leader-Post (Regina) 2006

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