I’ll never forget July 18, 1983. It was my first day at the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s signals intelligence agency. I was only 22 years old and had just graduated with an MA from Western University. I was being told that I was being asked to read intercepted signals and extract intelligence to be sent to the government to help keep Canada safe. A large, intimidating ex-RCMP officer (I’ll call him Joe) was giving me an overview of what my job entailed. At the end, he looked at me and said, “Son, you are going to get access to very sensitive material which must be protected. If you share any of it outside of work, you’ll get 14 years in prison!” I was taken aback by what I had signed up for.
Those of us working in intelligence/national security took our secrecy obligations seriously. Some of us made up stories about our workplaces, while others remained completely silent about their employment. We all learned how to deflect questions and prying from friends and family about what we did in the Sir Leonard Tilley building in Ottawa. This secrecy is necessary because the two most important elements to intelligence are sources and methods – where you get the intelligence and how you do it. If either of these are compromised, valuable information can disappear overnight.
What should we make, then, of what appears to be a “leak” at CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, where I worked as a senior strategic terrorism analyst? Documents obtained by a Globe and Mail reporter point to China’s attempts to interfere in the 2021 federal election. CSIS has a mandate to investigate foreign interference and has been doing so for decades. Despite this, successive federal governments have ignored the evidence of China’s meddling in our democracy. If it is true that a CSIS officer leaked this information, they could face serious consequences if caught.
We spend billions on intelligence in this country for a reason. It can prevent terrorism, identify foreign spies, and alert us when foreign powers are impacting the fairness of our elections. That it seems to have taken an unauthorized disclosure for the truth to come out is a sad comment on the intelligence culture in Canada. Now that the cat is out of the bag, Canadians can demand that action be taken.