OTTAWA -- The federal government plans to do more spying abroad, but has yet to decide whether Canada needs a new foreign-intelligence agency, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day says.
The Conservative government, he said, is still considering whether to create a separate new service to gather foreign intelligence and conduct overseas activities, or simply to expand the legal mandate for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
Mr. Day told a Conference Board of Canada meeting of security experts that the debate about a possible new agency is already under way within government and he wants to hear the views of private-sector specialists and others.
In a later interview, he said he doesn't want to prejudge the outcome of the discussions about a new agency, but there is little doubt Canada needs to improve its ability to gather foreign intelligence. He is setting no deadline as to when he wants to make a recommendation to the cabinet.
Canada is one of the few Western countries that does not have its own foreign-intelligence service. For years, Ottawa has been heavily depending on the United States, Britain and other friendly countries to share foreign intelligence under agreements dating back to the Cold War.
Some allies have said Canada needs to shoulder its share of the burden for ferreting out intelligence in far corners of the globe where Canadians might be well situated to act as spies.
Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, told a group of Canadian security studies specialists in Toronto last month, "it is time that Canada faced up to its international responsibilities and created its own foreign intelligence capability."
This view is hotly contested by many in Ottawa, not least by some in CSIS itself.
CSIS was created in 1984 from the ashes of the scandal-plagued security service of the RCMP, primarily as a domestic service to collect information about threats to Canadian national security.
CSIS officials say they already collect security intelligence overseas to some extent.
The Communications Security Establishment, a part of the Department of National Defence, also gathers a great deal of foreign intelligence in the form of intercepted telephone and other telecommunications traffic. The Canadian intelligence community, which includes counterterrorism units within the RCMP, gathers a great deal of foreign intelligence from various sources, Mr. Day said. "They are certainly not operating in a vacuum by any means; we just want to be able to improve that capacity."
Mr. Day, the minister responsible for both CSIS and the RCMP, said it's part of his mandate to "enhance the foreign intelligence capacity that we have in Canada."
Amending the CSIS Act, a legislative change that would involve changing only a couple of words in the law, is one approach, he said.
But also under consideration is creating a separate new service, an idea that the Conservatives sometimes touted when they were the official opposition.
"We want to move ahead in the most effective way possible," Mr. Day said.
He played down the suggestion that the startup costs for a new service might be a problem.
"We are putting safety and security first, recognizing there is an investment that will be required," he said, referring to increases in spending on public safety announced in the recent federal budget.
The need for a country like Canada to have foreign intelligence is clear, he said, because terrorist groups are operating not just in the Middle East but blowing up trains and subways in Western cities.
Mr. Day told the Conference Board audience that he has asked his emergency planners to develop contingency plans for a variety of terrorist scenarios, including three simultaneous subway or commuter-train bombings in three Canadian cities.
Earlier in the afternoon, Mr. Day told reporters that Ottawa is as "prepared as we can be" for a terrorist act that senior CSIS officials say is probable.
The budget's infusion of $1.4-billion into security projects, the banning of the Tamil Tigers and other actions taken by the Conservatives should assure people "we are being very vigilant."