Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Sigh... no spies. Another Conservative promise fades to black

Ed Hollet notes that the Harper promise to create a Canadian foreign intelligence agency, a la CIA, has more or less dropped off the list of really cool things to do in the Prime Minister's office. When the Harpers were campaigning they made something of a big deal about how important it was to have a separate intelligence agency do the things which, according to the Conservatives at the time, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service could not do.
The Conservative campaign promise to launch a foreign intelligence service has quietly vanished from sight, government sources say.

The plan, announced during the last election as part of the party's ambitious security agenda, is not entirely dead. But it has dropped well down the list of government priorities in this minority Parliament, the sources say.

The idea of a new service to spy abroad faces opposition from many senior officials in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and other existing security agencies, the sources say.

Moreover, CSIS has convinced Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day that it is able to do more spying abroad than it has in the past without the trouble of asking for parliamentary approval to start up a new agency.

Well, discounting the "promise not kept" mantra, the truth is CSIS could always gather foreign intelligence in accordance with article 16 of The CSIS Act. It isn't a blank cheque, but it is authority to go snooping providing they have been requested to do so by the Minister of National Defence or the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

You might have thought the Harpers would have checked that fact out a little more closely when they were making grandiose campaign promises.

Personally, I think there may just be other reasons for not pursuing this, the objections of CSIS notwithstanding. Margaret Bloodworth, Harper's national security adviser, may have said more than she thinks she did.

She noted that the start-up costs for a new spy agency would be high. But she would not disclose whether she favoured a new agency, saying her advice is only for Mr. Harper's ears.
Ah yes. Money. Having burned up a considerable chunk of the budget surplus buying votes in Quebec, the money that it would take to start up a whole new spy agency simply may not be there.

What CSIS cannot do, however, is go abroad to collect political or economic intelligence, Ms. Bloodworth told a Senate committee yesterday.

"Personally, I put a priority on security intelligence" over economic or political intelligence, she said.

Liberal Senator Wilfred Moore said it might be in Canada's interest to collect intelligence abroad to trade for intelligence from the U.S. or other allies.

But Ms. Bloodworth said it might not be in Canada's interest to share economic and political intelligence with allies. "It's for us."

There is some truth to that, however, that capability does exist within the established foreign missions of the Canadian government now. We don't have a bunch of "illegals" running spy rings around the world, but we do have political and economic intelligence gathering.

Further, while CSIS may have some limitations, this outfit does not. Yes, it collects national security intelligence, but it collects everything else too. Granted, it doesn't send a bunch of people out into the world spying, but the restriction that CSIS has which prevents it from collecting economic and political intelligence, doesn't exist at the Communications Security Establishment.

There is also the issue of "sharing". There is something niggling here. The suggestion of an active foreign intelligence agency would only go down well with the current US administration if there was a guarantee that everything gathered would be "shared". Saying, "It's for us," is all well and good, but that could result in repercussions down the road, particularly with the US.

So, I would suggest there are actually three things at play:

- The Conservatives made the campaign promise without actually costing out the expense involved in setting up a whole new agency;

- CSIS got its collective nose out of joint and made it clear that, as an agency, it can do more than it is being presently allowed, and, "I say minister, a simple amendment to the act and we are the foreign intelligence agency"; and,

- I suspect someone got their horoscope read to them. A crop of Canadian foreign spies running local agents, tripping over CIA or MI6 operations would be the last thing those two organizations would want. And you can imagine the fur-ball that would be created if a Canadian foreign intelligence service was caught operating in the US.

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