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Panel ponders CIA-style spy service for Canada

Terrorism in Canada

Canadian Press
Updated: Wed. Mar. 24 2004 8:50 PM ET

OTTAWA — A panel of senior spymasters is quietly mulling the vexing question of whether Canada should create a CIA-style foreign intelligence service.

Newly obtained documents show the high-level panel was asked late last year to determine if Canada is “adequately supplied” with valuable information from around the world.

Many believe the issue of whether Canada's eyes and ears are sufficiently focused on people and events abroad has taken on added urgency since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

“Does the government want/need more foreign intelligence?” asks a set of notes prepared for the panel, known as the Security and Intelligence Strategic Review Working Group.

“Would Canada want to follow a New Zealand model, wherein its Security Intelligence Service was given authority to conduct CIA/Secret Intelligence Service-type operations?”

The working group, formed in the spring of 2003, includes senior officials from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP, and the departments of Foreign Affairs, Immigration and Public Safety.

The group is trying to devise ways members of the intelligence community can function “better together,” said Francois Jubinville, a spokesman for the Privy Council Office, the agency of senior federal advisers that set up the panel. “The work of the group is ongoing.”

PCO released the documents to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act following a complaint to the federal information commissioner.

Canada's foreign intelligence currently comes from a variety of sources: collection by CSIS within Canada, the diplomatic reporting of Foreign Affairs, signals intelligence collection by the Communications Security Establishment (the country's electronic spy agency) and sharing of data with allies.

The newly obtained notes, prepared last August and September, underscore key questions including:

  • If Canada created a dedicated foreign intelligence service, which department would it fall under, to which minister would it report and what type of watchdog would it have?
  • Should this capacity be placed in a new agency, or located within CSIS, Foreign Affairs or another department?
  • Should Canada model itself after the United States and create a director of central intelligence position that would be the head of the foreign spy service as well as leader of the intelligence community?

One uncertainty is the degree to which CSIS, created in 1984 to protect Canada from terrorists and spies, can meet the country's needs for information about an increasingly dangerous world.

CSIS is permitted under the law to collect intelligence, at home or abroad, in investigating threats to national security such as a possible terrorist attack.

But while it can gather this sort of “security intelligence” anywhere, the spy agency is limited by the CSIS Act to the collection of “foreign intelligence” within Canada. As a result, CSIS could not, for instance, go beyond Canada's borders to collect information on military manoeuvres in another nation.

The strategic review of security and intelligence issues is feeding into a larger exercise to draft a new national security policy. Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan plans to outline the federal approach to the policy in a speech Thursday.

The government announced $605 million in new money for security over five years in the budget Tuesday.

But it's too early to say whether Canada needs to improve its foreign intelligence gathering, said McLellan's spokeswoman, Farah Mohamed.

“We currently feel very confident in the mechanisms that are in place -- they serve us very well,” she said. “But the culture's always changing, you have to make sure that you have to the tools to respond to that culture. That review is ongoing.”

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