Canada’s spy agency is embarking on a growing number of undercover foreign missions in response to the rise in terrorism.
Providing a rare glimpse into its strategic planning, a new report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service reveals an increasing reliance on secret operations abroad. “The accelerating international dimensions of the terrorist threat have seen foreign collection techniques employed more frequently,” says the CSIS report.
It paints a picture of a spy service that has gradually evolved from 1980s-era Cold War roots, when CSIS was largely concerned with left-wing subversives, to a more internationally focused agency dedicated to countering terrorism.
Islamic extremism, typified by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, has become the overriding preoccupation of the spy service.
CSIS’s foreign operations have expanded to include such techniques as sending Canadian-cultivated sources to other countries, enlisting foreign sources and meeting with those recruits abroad, the report says.
Former CSIS director Ward Elcock, who retired from the service this week after 10 years, recently told a Commons committee it is a question of when, not if, al-Qaida will try to attack Canada.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist assaults on the United States, there have been calls from some quarters for a new CIA-style Canadian spy agency dedicated to gathering foreign intelligence.
Elcock has repeatedly pointed out the intelligence agency could pursue cases abroad as long as they involved a threat to Canadian security.
In the report, the spy service acknowledges “there continue to be questions, and perhaps some confusion” about the agency’s ability to work overseas.
In addition, the “nature and scope of CSIS operations abroad have changed over the years.”
During its early years, CSIS worked overseas in response to “unique and specific circumstances” such as cases involving East Bloc defectors, but “this type of activity was the exception rather than the norm,” the report says.
The growing challenges of global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction saw the spy service shift much of its attention toward public safety.
Given that these threats either originate abroad or involve international elements, “CSIS has had to increasingly look outside Canada’s borders,” the report says.
As a result, the number of liaison arrangements with foreign security and intelligence organizations has grown to nearly 250 from about 50 in the late 1980s.
In the mid-90s, working abroad often involved co-operating with a sister intelligence service from another country in joint operations to obtain information of mutual interest.
“Such operations remain an important part of the Service’s repertoire,” the report says.
However, in the last five years – while mindful of the related costs and risks – CSIS has “increasingly engaged” in covert foreign missions.
The change was due to the service’s growing experience in these operations as well as “our country’s often unique access to individuals and sources” able to provide information about threats – an apparent reference to Canada’s multicultural makeup.