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Intelligence Shared, sort of
Intelligence warnings ignored, Or what is a warning?
Its an old story. An intelligence report contains some worrying indicators. Its shared around the national security community. It doesn’t get enough, or the right eyeballs. Confusion mounts about who exactly received the message and what they made of it. Accusations are traded, bucks are passed. Nothing is done.
Entire mythologies can be built around such missed intelligence warning. Perhaps the most famous historical example is the so-called “execute code” (“East Wind Rain”) allegedly transmitted by the Japanese in 1941 on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack, in a code system read by clever British and US cryptographers. Controversy over the execute message ultimately gave rise to an accusation that the US President, Franklin Roosevelt (or alternatively, the conniving British Prime Minister Winston Churchill), sat on the intelligence for days in order to pave the way for US intervention in World War Two. It never happened, but that hasn’t gotten in the way of a conspiracy theory.
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An overlooked intelligence warning (admittedly on a slightly less dramatic scale than “East Wind Rain”), seems the story of a July 2021 CSIS Intelligence Assessment Branch (IAB) report on Chinese government foreign interference, produced on the eve of the election writ period the following month. The report was leaked to the Globe and Mail (the latest in a long line of leaks stretching back to December 2022).
Thanks to the leaker and the Globe report of May 1, 2023, we know the title, date of the report, and its security marking: “People’s Republic of China Foreign Interference in Canada: A Critical National Security Threat,” July 20, 2021, TS (Top Secret), CEO (Canadian Eyes Only). We are told it was a 9 page document (that’s long for an intelligence report), and that it was self-described as a “baseline for understanding the intent, motives, and scope” of Chinese state interference in Canada. “Baseline” is a code for a high-level overview.
The original Globe and Mail news story does not indicate anything about the distribution of the report, but CSIS IAB reports are typically widely circulated within the national security community and likely would have gone to readers with appropriate clearances and need to know in PCO, including the National Security and Intelligence Adviser, the Communications Security Establishment, GAC, DND, Public Safety, CBSA, and the RCMP (the “core” of Canada’s national security and intelligence system).
A lot of intelligence reports, including on foreign interference, flow, horizontally and vertically, through the system. This was a report from two years ago. Now we are asking, should more attention have been paid?
An honest answer to that retrospective question depends on an ability to go back and read the report. That is clearly being done within the national security and intelligence community and at the political level.
The Globe and Mail has maintained its decision against publishing any of the leaked documents it has viewed, so members of the public are out of luck (and likely would remain out of luck even if a public inquiry into foreign influence is convened).
The Prime Minister and the Minister of Public Safety have both stated that they were not aware of the July 2021 report prior to its reference in the Globe’s report of May 1.
The Prime Minister passed the buck to the CSIS Director, David Vigneault, mistakenly claiming that CSIS had not shared the intelligence report outside the Service, and stating that “CSIS made the determination that it wasn’t something that needed to be raised to a higher level because it wasn’t a significant enough concern.” The Public Safety Minister has also piled on. Marco Mendicino called it a “serious problem …that neither the prime minister or the public safety minister at the time were briefed directly by CSIS.” Watch out for those bus wheels.
Out of the murk we do have confirmation that the office of the National Security and Intelligence Adviser at the time had received the report. The source is the current National Security and Intelligence Adviser, Jody Thomas.
Except that we didn’t have a NSIA in July 2021. Vincent Rigby had retired the previous month, in June 2021, and his successor, David Morrison, only came into the office on an acting basis in November 2021. A permanent NSIA—Jody Thomas—was only appointed in January 2022—six months after the retirement of her predecessor and just in time for the Freedom Convoy. There were caretakers, sure, at PCO, but these were officials also wearing other hats and doing other busy jobs (and there was COVID-19 to deal with).
Note to the Government—don’t leave the NSIA position vacant for months! Its inexcusable and results in a loss of collective knowledge when officials depart. Try to prevent the NSIA being a revolving door appointment! The function needs continuity and safe, highly experienced, respected hands.
OK, so the system had an important vacancy at the top. Does that explain the apparent lack of take-up of the report? The apparent failure to bring the report to the attention of Ministers? Maybe, if you assume there was something in the report that would have leapt out as new news for a senior decision maker.
Attention has zeroed in on an excerpt from the report that, according to the Globe and Mail, stated that Chinese intelligence (the MSS, or Ministry of State Security) “has taken specific actions to target Canadian MPs,” linked to Parliamentary censure of the Chinese government for its oppression of the Uyghurs. The Parliamentary motion, authored by Conservative MP, Michael Chong, declared Beijings’ policy to be a genocide.
The July 2021 CSIS IAB report apparently did not name any specific MPs targeted or Chinese intelligence officers involved, or add much detail about what “specific actions” were being taken by Chinese MSS officers.
All we know, according the Globe’s account, is that the CSIS report said that an unnamed MSS officer sought information on an unnamed Canadian MP’s relatives “who may be located in the PRC, for further potential sanctions.” The CSIS report deduced that this “is almost certainly meant to make an example of this MP and deter others from taking anti-PRC positions.”
The Globe and Mail had an ace up its sleeve in reporting on this CSIS assessment, in that the leaker told it the name of the MP targeted (Michael Chong) and the name of the Chinese official who hatched this plot, Zhao Wei.
Keep in mind that these details were likely closely held by CSIS, presumably to protect its intelligence gathering about MSS activities in Canada. The names would not have been contained in the circulated report.
We also don’t know how much attention was paid to this particular item in the 9 page report and where it appeared in the text—crucial information for any understanding of how it might have leapt out at readers cleared to see it. A tidbit, a headline, the central story, buried away…We don’t know.
Is this all starting to sound like an apologia, dear reader? Its not meant to be, just important context. Please bear with me.
What we have is a high-level, nine page report circulating around the national security community for readers with a TS clearance (yes, there are lots of those) at the height of summer. (Note—senior officials like to take their holidays in summer, like everyone else, and prefer to be absent when Parliament is not in session. An anticipated election call was another good reason to hang a ‘gone fishing’ electronic notice on your door).
Was this a recipe for a warning to be missed? Sure, but then the Canadian intelligence system has to be on 24/7 watch, summer or no, coming election or no.
More problematic is to know what reaction is called for by generic warnings, or warnings that lack detail (or are not “actionable,” in the vague parlance favoured by intelligence officials). Here there is a recourse built into the system. Intelligence reports are not meant to be static, take it or leave it, accounts. They are meant to operate in an intelligence cycle, in a feedback loop. Officials who receive reports (“consumers” in the biz jargon of the intelligence world) are meant to ask questions, ask for more, uncover some of the details that might not have made it into the text of a general report, require additional tasking of sources. There are systems in place to allow for this, including intelligence agency report carriers, known as “Crows” (CROs—client relations officers). What we know to date suggests that this additional probing did not take place.
Senior officials have another challenge—what material to try to brief up to the political level. Selection and judgement are required, underscored by the reality of limited face time with political leaders. Justice Rouleau commented at one point in his report on the need for there to be less filtering of intelligence going to decision-makers, but this betrayed a failure to understand how intelligence works. Streams of raw data don’t go to decision-makers, nor do all intelligence reports. They can’t.
Without seeing the July 20, 2021 report, I think we should all be cautious about flinging blame around (particularly if this is convenient for politicians).
I also think there is a real problem with some real remedies.
One reason that our intelligence system may not be performing as well as it must when it comes to foreign interference comes down to the operational CSIS doctrine of “sensitive sectors.” This doctrine dates from the very origins of CSIS. Sensitive sectors are areas of society that are deemed sensitive in that they require special care on the part of CSIS when conducting intelligence operations, because of their potential impact on democratic practices. The “sectors,” as originally laid out, are politicians and political parties, the media, universities, religious establishments, and those whose age makes them minors under Canadian law. The concept is a worthy one, though it needs updating. But the flip side of sensitive sectors as something requiring operational prudence was always meant to be an understanding that sensitive sectors may be particular targets for foreign espionage and interference (both embedded as missions in the original CSIS Act) and worthy of heightened attention in reporting.
Something has gotten lost in translation over the years. The sensitive sectors doctrine needs to be underscored and modernized—a key lesson from accumulated knowledge of foreign interference. Modernization should also involve a reference to key elements of critical infrastructure, public and private. There is a lesson there from the Freedom Convoy crisis.
A second problem has to do with governance at the top. The Canadian intelligence system is too decentralized, too siloed, there are too many moving parts. These structural facts can only be mitigated through a greater concentration of power, authority and resources at the centre—at PCO and in the office of the National Security and Intelligence Adviser. Central authority for reporting and coordination of the community needs juicing up.
But governance change at the officials’ level doesn’t solve the problem of political attention to intelligence and intelligence warnings.
Politicians will be politicians. They will have their own trusted sources of information, their own beliefs, and their own confidence in their judgement and experience. Intelligence has to be able to penetrate this halo. Partly that is a cultural mission. But it also requires change to how Cabinet governance is organized. The best intelligence in the world is useless if it can’t attract and pin political eyeballs. To better achieve such an outcome we need change to Cabinet committee management. There is a clear need for a Cabinet committee on national security and intelligence, chaired by the Prime Minister (or an even more radical overhaul, but let’s start here). The IRG (Incident Response Group, or “erg,”) doesn’t cut it. It has decision-making power, yes, it can combine Ministers and senior advisers around the Cabinet table, yes. But it is ad hoc, reactive and tailored to responding to emergencies. It’s not strategic or forward looking. It can’t deal with persistent threats, or new ones still on the horizon.
The old argument against any high-profile national security and intelligence committee was that it wouldn’t have enough to do, or enough important things to command a PM’s attention. Well, that’s truly old. Look at the mess the current government is in with regard to Chinese state foreign interference.
A third problem involves enforcement. Intelligence warning is important; political attention is required. But if action is not taken, the wheels have fallen off. Action can include law enforcement and criminal sanctions, it can include threat reduction measures from CSIS and the RCMP, it can include all sorts of diplomatic responses, it can include accelerated intelligence gathering and assessment, it can include important public messaging. When it comes to the more blatant forms of foreign interference, publics will rightly demand visible action, maybe sometimes unrealistically so.
We are at that point now in the saga of revelations about Chinese foreign interference. Action must be taken, or trust in government is undermined. It is dispiriting in the extreme to see the Government dithering. Sure, the Chinese ambassador to Canada was called in to GAC for a diplomatic dressing down. That comes at the more minor end of effective action. Instead, we have the depressing spectacle of the Foreign Minister, Melanie Joly, lecturing Parliament (including the targeted Michael Chong) that any action Canada might take against China would have repercussions that would have to be carefully considered. Reminding China that Canada fears retaliation is tantamount to inviting retaliation (and laughter).
In case you think this dithering didn’t make the international press, see:
Maybe, in addition to some major reforms to how intelligence works, we need some shake-up in public communications. I am no comms expert, but how about this, Minister, for a message:
“Global Affairs Canada is taking a lead in creating a (further) package of strong measures that will send a signal to the Chinese government that Canada will not tolerate blatant interference in our democracy. The measures will be made public where possible and will demonstrate to Canadians and the world the nature of our determination. We will not hesitate to expel Chinese officials who are acting in contravention of their diplomatic undertakings and working to subvert Canadian values and interests. These measures will be taken in coordination with our allies, especially our Five Eyes partners. We expect China not to engage in tit for tat retaliation and further damage our relations.”
Maybe we will even get around to expelling a few Russian “diplomats.”
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