May 17, 2007

Snooper blooper

Creating a Canadian version of the CIA proves to be a bad idea


Among the numerous Conservative initiatives that make far better election promises than sound public policy, we can apparently scratch the plan to create a separate Canadian intelligence agency to spy on other countries.

The way Stephen Harper was talking during the 2006 election, a Conservative government would unleash on the world a whole new army of Canadian spooks to rival the American CIA.

They even had a name for it, the Canadian Foreign Intelligence Agency, a politically sexy idea intended to convince voters that a Harper government would get tough on terrorism, and move Canada into the big leagues of foreign intelligence.


The agency was supposedly required to identify and head off security threats before they reach Canadian soil, and to "increase allied intelligence."

But like successive governments dating back more than 20 years, the Conservatives have wisely concluded that marching another bureaucracy into the war on terror may not be the most effective way to protect the country from the bin Ladens of the world.

Instead, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day says the government will simply enhance the ability of the existing Canadian Security Intelligence Service to operate overseas. A new spy service, he said, is not in the country's best interests.

"After some months of looking at it, we believe this is the best way to go," Day told a Commons committee.

For years, the idea of a Canadian CIA has been the subject of routine and heated debate.

At issue is Canada's ability to defend itself, and the potentially massive amounts of taxpayers' money that would be required to create and operate a new foreign spy service.

Proponents argue a new Canadian spy agency would be able to gather more intelligence of specific importance to Canada, while generating information "trading chips" to swap with other foreign spy services.

But a succession of informed studies by intelligence think-tanks, and even a former boss of the Canadian spy service, all concluded that the money required to grow a new bureaucracy from scratch would be better spent elsewhere.

As former CSIS head Reid Morden wrote in recent analysis of the issue: "Any marginal increase in the intelligence production through independent Canadian collection abroad would not justify the substantial costs and risks involved.

"The sagest course is to strengthen and improve Canada's current capabilities."

Morden estimated it would cost upwards of $200 million just to set up a new agency, and could take a decade to train foreign espionage agents, most of whom would probably be drawn from existing CSIS ranks and therefore have to be replaced.

And all for what? Fact is, Canadian spies are already operating abroad.

The existing CSIS mandate allows agents to operate in foreign countries to gather intelligence on direct security threats to Canada or Canadians.

Indeed, Canada's current spymaster, Jim Judd, recently told a Senate committee that CSIS currently has about 50 agents in 30 countries.

As Judd put it, the "core business" of CSIS is to collect intelligence on state support for terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass-destruction and foreign government support for espionage activities in Canada.

What CSIS can't do on foreign soil is spy on a government to collect broader political and economic intelligence. By law, that can only happen from within Canada.

While the Harper government has not indicated exactly how it intends to broaden the powers of CSIS, the most likely change will be to simply eliminate the words, "within Canada," unleashing the spooks to do whatever needs to be done, wherever it needs to be done.

The Conservatives are bound to take some opposition heat for breaking an election promise by not setting up a Canadian CIA, but this time they are right to bow out of a bad idea.