Canada’s strategic deficit cannot be neglected

Vincent Rigby

What role or gap does the Global Security Reporting Program (GSRP) fill in Canada’s intelligence or information needs?

The GSRP reporting performs a very important role inside the intelligence community, inside foreign affairs reporting writ large. I was basically a client for 20 years from the time that it was created—and I think it was just after 9/11, in 2002—right up until I left government in 2021, so I read a lot of their reports over that time period. First of all, they’re just very high quality. The one thing you can say about Global Affairs Canada (GAC) people is they write well—they’ve got good analytical minds and are good thinkers, so the reports are always very insightful, very easy to follow. I was always excited when I got a GSRP report on my desk—they’re just high-quality products and that was always a good read in that respect. What stood out for me, a number of factors, first of all these are people who are over in a host country, there on the ground, so you’re getting that on the ground perspective of somebody who knows the country, who overtime is going to become an expert on its politics, on its society, on its economy—a whole range of issues. They’ve got serious language training, so they can speak to a wide variety of people. The language training was very important in terms of being able to access individuals in that country, and they reached out to a wide swath of contacts. I’ve always thought that was great in the sense that you were getting GSRP officers talking to government officials, without a doubt, but also non-government officials, businessmen, academics and civil society representatives, just anybody with a view, quite frankly, who are usually quite informed, usually had an opinion about the country. So it was that on the ground lens, the wide perspective that they took.

What I often liked is that it was a security reporting program, but it was security defined [LM1] in a very broad way. What I mean by that is that they were in countries that often were unstable, that could be the source of instability or insecurity down the road that had human rights issues and that sort of thing. You didn’t only just want information about hard security matters, about a war that’s broken out or a conflict or actionable operational intelligence, you often wanted bigger picture contextual information about the politics, about society, about fissures in society, about drivers behind instability. I thought that the GSRP reporting was extremely good in that regard, so you got big picture context, it wasn’t it intelligence through a straw—and I’m not suggesting that all intelligence is through a straw, not at all, far from it—but this was always a very big picture. You came away, I found, no matter who they talked to, even if it was an individual on a very specific topic, you came away with a better sense of what that region or what that country was about,[LM2]  the problems they were facing, and all those diverse views and so on. That’s what I remember about it. That’s what really stuck out for me, and reading all the reporting recently in the press in The Globe and Mail and so on, and the different views that were coming across, this [LM3] all came back to me as I started to think about it, but it was really useful in that in that regard.

What is the nature of the information that the GSRP collects and what distinguishes it from the kinds of information that intelligence agencies collect?

Without a doubt I think a lot of the Global Affairs people who have been speaking out publicly are 100% right that this is not intelligence reporting in the sense that you’re using human sources and you’re paying human sources. So it is again looking at something a little bit broader. When you’re talking to human sources it’s often more focused, it’s more operational-level [LM4] intelligence,[LM5]  not always, but often is the case; whereas in the case of GSRP reporting these are just individuals, they’re not human sources, they are not being paid. It’s not covert collection, it’s very overt collection. That doesn’t mean it’s not intelligence gathering because you can have open-source intelligence and intelligence can come from open sources—we can get into a long debate about what the definition of intelligence is, which probably not what you want to do for the next 20 minutes—but I would say that GSRP is intelligence reporting, it aligns with the intelligence priorities of Canada, and the last time I checked GSRP was in the intelligence branch, or intelligence division, at GAC. It has an intelligence moniker to it, but again it’s a little bit broader in terms of its approach than a lot of other reporting you’re going to see at other organizations.

Not to say that you wouldn’t get that strategic view from other intelligence agencies, but that’s what stood out for me, as I said before, that contextual information. It wasn’t necessarily something that was going to be useful right that moment, or actionable, but that if something went wrong later on in that country, that information that you gathered six months or a year earlier that’s in the back of your mind, would often pop into the front of your mind, and you go “okay, yeah, I remember that GSRP reporting talking about underlying political instability here or there.” And it would prove very useful and would help inform decision making. I wouldn’t say it is completely different than anything else you’d see inside the intelligence community because it was in a way, as I said, intelligence information that was being provided. But it had some nuance, it had certain elements to it that made it stand out, at least for me, and I can speak from my own personal perspective as much as anything else. But it was a very useful product and it was unique in some ways.

What are the main obstacles or difficulties that limit Canada’s intelligence and foreign service communities’ ability to communicate more effectively across departments as well as up the chain to the political or decision-making level?

This has been commented on by a number of people and review bodies lately. The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) did a report on GAC intelligence not too long ago and it was pretty critical of intelligence in GAC in terms of its culture, in terms of its governance, in terms of ministerial accountability and ministerial involvement. It was a fairly damning report in the sense that GAC needed maybe to up its game a little bit on the intelligence side. I have to say, having worked in GAC on two separate occasions, four years as an Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM), six months as the Associate, there are cultural challenges when it comes to intelligence inside the department. Having said that, there are culture issues right across the S&I community in Canada and there’s culture issues at the political level when it comes to security intelligence, so I’m not singling out GAC here, but there is a certain view in GAC that intelligence has its limitations. I’ve heard it from very senior people at the department that intelligence can come in handy, but people on mission who felt they could gather just as much intelligence from stepping outside the consulate or the embassy and walking around the street and gathering information as opposed to getting a report from an intelligence organization—I often heard that from diplomats, a certain skepticism about the role of intelligence. I think that’s still there at the most senior levels inside the department and that’s unfortunate. It’s not there, obviously, within the intelligence division—it’s great that that was created a number of years ago, I think slowly but surely the culture is starting to improve.

It has to start inside GAC in terms of that intelligence culture and taking it more seriously and seeing the value in it, that, as good as our diplomatic reporting is, and as good as a lot of stuff that comes out of GAC, intelligence bodies like the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canadian Forces Intelligence Command (CFINTCOM), and Intelligence Assessment Secretariat (IAS) at the Privy Council Office (PCO)  provide a lot of really good stuff. That’s part of the problem. I think there’s also a bit of a culture problem outside of GAC when it comes to the relationship between GAC and other bodies on intelligence. I think that there’s a sense among certain other departments or agencies around town that GAC doesn’t get intelligence perhaps as well as they should, and for that reason sometimes they’re a little careful about what they share and perhaps they don’t share as much as they could. So again, this is a problem throughout the S&I community, working together.

We’ve seen all the stuff that’s come up in the context of foreign interference and with the freedom convoy about silos of information going up—I think you’re still seeing a lot of that, and stuff going up in certain departments and agencies that aren’t being shared with GAC or other departments; or the same with GAC not sharing information. That’s part of the problem—trying to embrace that intelligence culture, see the value in intelligence, see the value in sharing the information and working together. As the as the old cliche goes, we’re all part of the same team. Our S&I community is not huge in Canada, not compared to the US or the UK. It’d be nice to see everybody fit together a little bit more seamlessly and fill some of those gaps that we have in the intelligence and information sharing domain.

How can cooperation and coordination between the intelligence community and the foreign service be strengthened so that they understand each other’s value proposition better and what each does? 

At the end of the day, it starts with people. At the highest levels of organizations, if we’re talking specifically about CSIS and GAC, the director of CSIS and the Undersecretary of State, the Deputy Minister of GAC, talking on a regular basis about intelligence matters, about functional issues, about issues of governance, that sort of thing. I think that’s happening more and more, just having people speak to each other. Often I find one of the best ways to improve relationships between departments and agencies is to have a few more exchanges of personnel—have some GAC people go and work at CSIS for a little while, have some CSIS people go and work at GAC. They often work together at embassies overseas, but the extent to which they exchange in their headquarters in Ottawa, I’m not sure. I’m not sure if they have any regular programs, I don’t think they do exchange programs, and that would be one way to do it. The other is governance. People’s eyes tend to glaze over when you start talking about governance, there’s been a lot of talk about it in the last number of years on the S&I side, and I’ve been going on about it ad nauseam—we’re going to talk about the National Security Council a little bit later—but having those bodies where people can get together and iron out wrinkles and come up with solutions to problems.

I know that GAC and CSIS have had a joint management team that operates at the Deputy Minister (DM) level, but my understanding is it hasn’t been meeting on a very regular basis, or it hasn’t been meeting as well as it should. If they’re not meeting at the most senior levels that probably drips down to the lower levels and they’re probably not meeting as much as they should. That joint management team, I think, is still in existence, and I would encourage both departments to meet as much as they possibly can. I’m not saying they have to have weekly meetings, but once or twice a year probably isn’t going to do it. Because the two departments, or the department and CSIS, the agency, work so closely together, take advantage of that governance. If you need to create new governance, do that as well. I hate when, if you’re not sure what to do, “just create another committee, create another governance body, have another talk shop”—but if they’re if they’re created the right way and they’re used the right way they can be really useful and they break down those silos.

I remember years ago working at National Defence, I spent my first 15 years in National Defence, back in those days—I’m not sure now, I can’t speak to it—but Defence and Foreign Affairs never got together, never spoke to one another on a strategic level. We were talking to each other every single day on operational issues and tactical issues, but one of the ways we got to get to know each other better was just by meeting on a regular basis. When I got up to the Director General (DG) and ADM level, meeting with my counterparts on a regular basis—don’t wait for a crisis to happen, I guess is the key, do not wait for a crisis to happen—but that’s one way of moving forward. It sounds rather superficial and kind of cliché, but it can help for sure. I think you’re going to see that coming out of the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) report, where there’s a lot of talk about governance and how deconflict between departments and agencies and how we can do that governance piece a little bit better.

In an interview with us back in June you commented that at the time Canada was the only Five Eyes country that did not have some sort of national security cabinet committee. Later in the summer the government set up a National Security Council tasked with setting the “strategic direction” for the emerging challenges Canada faces. Although information on the new National Security Council is still limited, what do you expect or hope their function and authorities will be, particularly with respect to aligning the intelligence community and the foreign service?

Thomas Juneau and I take complete and utter credit for the creation of that National Security Council because that’s all we’ve been talking about publicly for the last year, year and a half—I’m joking, of course, I doubt very much our voices were heard at the center, but I think this was in train for a while. I’m just really glad it’s happened, very excited that it’s happened. But as Thomas and I have written in another piece outside of that big report we did in spring 2022—we wrote a piece for The Line where we talked about what you needed to do—creating a body is one thing, but actually making it work is going to be key, and what needs to go into making that body effective and efficient and fully functional. I’m really glad to see that it’s chaired by the prime minister, that was one of our first recommendations, because if you have a National Security Council that’s chaired at the deputy prime minister or the foreign minister or Public Safety level, the national security—the buck stops with the prime minister, in my view. The PM has got to lead that body. In the other bodies in the Five Eyes, including the National Security Council in the US, it’s led by the president or is led by the prime minister. That’s the good news.

You’ve got to remember that it’s a cabinet committee, and cabinet committees can be created and they can be jettisoned just like that, they can disappear really quickly. In a perfect world this would be formed in legislation, not easy to do in a Canadian context, we’re not the United States. There probably are ways you could do it but it’d be pretty creative. I’m hoping that the government sticks with it and because it’s a cabinet committee just don’t decide one day while it’s not working all that well, “we’re just going to let it go,” or a new government comes in and goes, “we don’t we don’t really need this, the Prime Minister’s got too much on his plate.” Let’s hope it sticks around for a long time because it’s also going to take time for it to meet its mandate. But to answer your question directly, what are my expectations? This is the body that I’ve been arguing for a while we need to provide strategic coherence on national security in Canada and we just haven’t had that in a long time—we’ve not had a national security policy for 20 years. But more generally, in terms of integration and how we respond to crises, how we talk about intelligence, how we develop policies on specific issues outside of a broad national security policy—this can only happen, I think, at a table like this. I’m hoping that it gets to the root of some of the strategic issues facing the country and the national security front now.

I’m hoping, if not under this government—it’s highly doubtful within a minority government and an election not too far around the corner that they’re going to do this—but that the National Security Council be the place where they start to develop a national security policy in the not-too-distant future because we desperately need it. It’s going to be great meeting on a regular basis. I don’t know how often it’s met, I heard a few weeks ago it only met once, since then maybe more than once. It needs to meet on a regular basis. This is important because it’s critical that the members of the committee gather that corporate knowledge and that corporate understanding of national security issues. One of the challenges I often found with the Incident Response Group (IRG) is that there’d be a crisis, people would be called in, and you’d have to brief them from scratch oftentimes. If you’ve got a National Security Council meeting on a regular basis, they’re talking about these issues all the time, they’re getting to know these issues so that when a crisis strikes they’re ready to roll, they’re not still in the starting blocks trying to figure out how to start running down the track—they’re halfway down the track with the information.

That’s my other expectation, is that this be intelligence driven. We’ve seen all the problems with intelligence being collected in a siloed manner, not being integrated, not being sent to the right people, as we’ve seen with the foreign interference issue or with the convoy, and I was part of those problems, especially on Chinese foreign interference I’ll take my fair share of responsibility. What I’m hoping is that when you have a body like the National Security Council, that you’ve now got a place where all this intelligence is going to land so that you do integrate it, hopefully at the center, and that this intelligence go up fully integrated, fully analyzed, fully assessed for the prime minister and his National Security Council and they talk about this stuff. They’re all briefed together, so they’ve all got the same information, they’ve got the same knowledge base and that can inform their decision making. I’m hearing good things in that respect. They’ve got a specific secretariat in PCO that supports the National Security Council, that is bringing in a lot of the intelligence and starting to integrate it. I still think we need a dedicated individual or function, like the Office of National Intelligence or the Director of National Intelligence in Australia or the US, separated out from the National Security and Intelligence Advisor (NSIA)—I think the NSIA is going to have enough on her plate without dealing with specifically intelligence as well, but that’s another issue down the line, perhaps another governance issue.

Those are the big things for my expectations, and having a broad definition of national security, taking a strategic longer term look at things. It’s not just about the crises, as I was saying before, but take a look at climate change through a national security lens, take a look at pandemics through a national security lens. Get ready for this stuff and get ready for all the implications of climate change for national security, whether it’s the Arctic or other issues. I hope they take that broad lens and apply it to national security.

The Senate Standing Committee released an in-depth report earlier this month on Canada’s foreign service, representing an effort that had not been undertaken in over 40 years, and NSIRA is releasing a report today on the GSRP. While these reports provide valuable guidance and recommendations, given that Canada’s National Security Policy is turning 20 years old next year, what implications does that have for the overarching policy direction and strategic thinking that must go into a reimagining of Canada’s foreign service?

First of all, I’ll just correct you when you say, if I could, that our national security policy is 20 years old—I don’t think we have a national security policy. That national security policy from 2004 is dead as a doornail. And it was probably dead not too long after the Conservatives came to power in 2006, or whenever it was, so we’ve effectively not had a national security policy for a long time. There’s been a complete vacuum. I think The Senate report was great, I think the NSIRA report is going to be great, it’s going to be pretty hard hitting. The Senate report is hard hitting, especially coming from two former deputies there, or Deputy and Associate Deputy, Peter Harder and Peter Boehm—they know what they’re talking about, they’ve got insights into how did that department work, so that was really useful. The NSIRA report, which I’ve had a chance just to skim, not read it in detail, but it’s got some really great recommendations about how to improve GSRP reporting. It’s a valuable asset about ways they can tighten the screws and improve stuff in terms of oversight and in terms of governance and policy frameworks, et cetera.

The bigger issue for me is what I find really interesting, so it goes back to the strategy. I think the Senate report is great but in some respects when I read it, I go, “Okay. This is all great but—” it’s almost like we always say form follows function, sometimes I feel some of these reports are function following form because, “this is about the way we should be organized,” “this is about the way we should do stuff.” We’re not having the actual debate on what our foreign policy is.

It’s similar to what I just said about national security policy. We’re talking about all the things that GAC needs—it needs less top-heavy management, it needs better HR, it needs more language training, it needs more of this, more of that. But we don’t even know what our foreign policy is. On the one hand you can say, “well, just look at the world and look at what all the challenges are that are out there right now,” and Canada, no matter what their foreign policy is, they are going to need these assets in the diplomatic service—I accept that. But I can’t tell you that the next formal foreign policy of Canada is not going to be 80/70/75% focused on the Indo-Pacific, given that that’s the only thing we seem to know about with our current foreign policy, how we feel about the Indo-Pacific region. It would be nice sometime soon to have a strategic discussion about where Canada is in the world right now, and what we want in terms of our national interests overseas. I’d be hard pressed to tell you what our foreign policy is right now, and if you don’t know what your foreign policy is, it’s pretty difficult to figure out exactly what the kind of assets are that you need. We need to have that discussion. Again, I don’t think we’re going to get a foreign policy review with the current government given it’s a minority and the election around the corner. I hope with a new government, after the election, minority or majority, we have a greater discussion about our foreign policy.

The next point I’d make is that it can’t just be about our foreign policy, I think it’s got to be linked up very closely with our national security policy, with our defence policy, with our development policy. We tend to do these things in silos in this in this country. I think now more than ever, the way the world is interconnected with the huge strategic challenges that are out there, especially on the security front—if we do a foreign policy that’s not right in lockstep with a defence policy and a national security policy, I think it’s just silly. We did a defence policy back in 2017 but no foreign policy, no national security policy, and I think that it’s showing now. Any thinking we do at the strategic level about our foreign policy has to be in close lockstep with those other elements that are both domestic and international in nature. That’s really important. Then as we have those broader discussions about policy and strategy, the government’s got to step up and actually put the money on the bar for the assets that we need. As Peter Boehm said, a lot of the recommendations that are coming out for GAC, they’re going to require money, but here we are on the one hand, the government produced its own strategy, Future of Diplomacy, and yet at the same time it’s being cut. The same is happening with defence—we got to get all this stuff for defence, but at the same time, they’re taking a hit.

I suspect that if you get a Conservative government coming in, one of the first things they’re going to want to do is probably a program review. So let’s have the discussion, but let’s be prepared as we have that discussion to actually pony up to the bar here. That’s been a problem in this country for a while—we don’t have the strategy. Even if we did have the strategy, I don’t know if we’d be prepared to put the resources towards it. The Indo-Pacific region is a perfect example—I don’t think for the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) $2.3 billion over five years is going to do it, I can tell you it certainly doesn’t do it on the defence side, and I think it’s $500 million over five years. The Chief of Defence Staff and the Chief of the Navy are already saying that they probably can’t even sustain one extra frigate in the Indo-Pacific region, not in five years, next year. This commitment-capability gap, as we used to call it in defence, we’ve got to keep that in mind as we talk about broader foreign policy, national security, et cetera. I just think it’s time. There’s so much going on in this world right now, we need a debate in this country about this about this stuff. You’re starting to see a lot of the commentators now, virtually every weekend in The Globe and Mail there’s another piece about whither Canadian foreign policy, whither Canada’s defence policy, national security. Something’s got to give and I hope it’s soon.

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