OTTAWA—The Liberal government has issued a broad new directive requiring more accountability from Canada’s domestic spy agency, the Star has learned.
The updated rules require the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to be more upfront with its political masters on its operations and techniques, including informing the public safety minister before undertaking “high risk” intelligence operations.
The directive also underlines expectations that CSIS will be “full, fair, and frank” in its dealings with the Federal Court after recent rulings sharply criticized the agency for failing to properly inform judges about its activities.
The Star reported Saturday that CSIS repeatedly broke accountability rules by failing to inform then-public safety minister Ralph Goodale about an undisclosed number of “high-risk” intelligence operations.
“The government and the people of Canada expect a high level of performance by (CSIS) in discharging its responsibilities … Accountability is fundamental to our system of government, and in maintaining the confidence of Canadians,” reads a copy of the Sept. 10 directive obtained by the Star.
Under the new directive, which updates rules for CSIS operations last issued in 2015, the agency is required to inform the public safety minister about a broader range of its activities — including legal proceedings, the use of “novel” intelligence techniques or technologies, or independent review bodies finding possible “unlawful activity” by the spy agency.
Details about those operations were censored from the June 2018 memo to Goodale, obtained by the Star under access to information law, and a spokesperson for the agency said releasing further information about the operations “would be injurious to national security.”
Richard Fadden, who served as CSIS director and as national security adviser to two prime ministers, said it wasn’t rare for the agency to notify ministers about “high-risk” operations — but neither was it a routine occurrence.
“If the minister has been in the job for a little while, he would receive a good handful of them,” Fadden said in an interview with the Star.
“On the other hand, it would really depend on particular circumstances in Canada and around the world … When I was director, there was a period where there was a few more (high-risk operations), other periods when there were very, very few. It really does depend on what’s going on, generally.”
The new accountability rules lay out a broad range of CSIS activity that could be considered “high risk” including:
- Legal risks, assessed by Department of Justice criteria.
- Operational security risks, both in terms of the environments CSIS agents operate and the agency’s activities and tradecraft, including risks of bodily harm or death.
- Reputational risks, meaning any activities that have the potential to discredit the service or the government if uncovered, or give rise to “public controversy.”
- Foreign policy risks, to be assessed with Global Affairs bureaucrats.
The risks associated with CSIS’ overseas operations may be top of mind for the government because the agency has bulked up its presence internationally, telling parliamentarians in 2018 it has a “growing footprint” at missions operated by Global Affairs Canada. The number of CSIS agents and analysts deployed overseas is not publicly known, with the agency only acknowledging permanent outposts in Washington, London and Paris.
The directive specifically lays out a list of activities that could be considered foreign policy risks, including damaging Canadian relations with other states or intergovernmental bodies or severely damaging Canada’s economic or security interests abroad.
Any operations that could harm Canadians safety abroad — including personnel at Canada’s foreign missions — either directly or as “a result of retaliation” from foreign governments would also be deemed high risk, as would CSIS agents’ covert infiltration of foreign diplomatic missions at home or abroad.
Wesley Wark, a professor at the University of Ottawa who researches national security and intelligence issues, called the new directive “very significant.”
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“Altogether the (ministerial direction) points to a future in which public safety ministers will be better informed regarding the work of CSIS, in which the public safety department will have a greater say in policy issues affecting the service, and in which ministers will exercise real accountability,” Wark told the Star.
“This is all to the good so long as ministers respect the golden rule of being engaged but never using CSIS for political ends.”
In a statement, CSIS said they take their responsibilities for accountability seriously — including their duty of candour with the Federal Court.
“CSIS takes compliance with Ministerial Direction and its duty to support Ministerial accountability seriously. As is normal practice, Ministerial Direction is updated on a regular basis to reflect changes within the security and intelligence space – which have evolved considerably since the last MD was issued in 2015,” wrote John Townsend, CSIS’ head of media relations, in a statement.