Three of Canada’s former spy chiefs are encouraging the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference to challenge government censorship of national security information.
While many national security secrets must necessarily remain secret, former heads of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) said the inquiry should challenge government secrecy around certain information relevant to the probe.
“I think it is very important for the credibility of agencies and for the people of Canada and parliamentarians to understand why agencies are doing what they’re doing, to understand the good work that is being done for the people of Canada,” said Alan Jones, a former Assistant Director at CSIS in charge of operations, at the commission’s hearing Wednesday morning. “The only way to do that is to be more transparent.”
The commission, called by the Liberal government after months of national security leaks and news stories on foreign interference, began its first week of preliminary hearings on Monday. At issue this week is how much intelligence will be able to be publicly disclosed through the commission’s probe.
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It’s both an issue for the credibility of the commission’s ultimate findings later this year and Canada’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies, which always want to keep their sources and techniques for gathering information secret.
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“Intelligence agencies like CSE and CSIS must at all costs protect their sources, their techniques, their technology. So when you publish a report about a conversation, even if you take out the names and redact locations and some of the specifics, you can easily divulge who or how the information was obtained that puts your sources at risk, or your target will take steps to evade your technology and techniques and you go dark,” said John Forster, who served as chief of CSE between 2012 and 2015.
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“Public interest in transparency will be very important, but it must be balanced also against very real and serious national security interests.”
Still, Dick Fadden, a former director of CSIS who also served as national security advisor to two prime ministers, said there is a tendency for intelligence agencies to “overclassify” information. Once an agency or department applies top secret classification to a document or report, the process to “declassify” can take considerable time – if it occurs at all.
Fadden said a lot of “raw” intelligence – phone intercepts, physical surveillance, or data collected through electronic spying, for instance – can be “aggregated” in such a way that Canadians could get the gist but they would not include discussion of specific sources or methods.
“I think it’s important to remember that ministers and senior officials very rarely get raw intelligence. They get analytical reports,” Fadden told the commission. “It’s in these kinds of reports, I think, where you have a little bit more flexibility to argue that, you know, if you take out two words or if you aggregate up a level … you can get them to release (the information).”
The commission’s preliminary hearings are scheduled to continue tomorrow with CSIS Director David Vigneault, Alia Tayyeb, CSE’s deputy chief of signals intelligence, and Dan Rogers, a former senior CSE official and deputy secretary to cabinet.
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