Revitalizing National Security: A Critical Examination of the Intelligence Community

Vincent Rigby

With Johnston’s resignation as special rapporteur, the assumption seems to be that a public inquiry is now inevitable. Given the fact that the intelligence at the centre of this issue is classified, what can a public inquiry realistically achieve?

The government has kind of thrown it to the opposition parties to sort it out and we’re still waiting to hear back how they want to proceed. Johnston also suggested that maybe we look at a compromise, not do nothing but have some public consultations and see if we can get to the bottom of the matter through those consultations. You must ask yourself what can be achieved with a public inquiry at the end of the day. What are you looking to achieve? What is the outcome?

The problem right now is that an inquiry for the political class, as Wesley Wark said, is a highly politicized blame game. If what you want out of a public inquiry is to dig up some dirt, to point the finger at politicians, who some believe, for nefarious purposes, were ignoring intelligence for their own political gain, to point the finger at highly placed public servants who report to the government—if you’re looking to achieve something like that, you’re not going to find much at the end of the day. It’s been exposed. There were no nefarious purposes at play here. There was no political controversy, there was no wrongdoing in the sense that the government willfully ignored or subverted intelligence for their own political gain.

Were mistakes made? Absolutely mistakes were made. They’ve been exposed by Mr. Johnston, they’ve been exposed by the press, they’ve been exposed to PROC. I’ve talked about some of those problems with respect to information sharing. To spend two and a half years on a public inquiry, a lot of money, a lot of processes, and then wait probably another year for a government response—you’re talking about three and a half to four years before this all gets done.

In the meantime, the problems aren’t going to be solved. So, what’s going to be achieved? Not much is going to be achieved at the end of the day. If you go this route, at the end of it, people are going to go, “Well, we haven’t found out that much more, maybe a few more details, maybe not.” So much of this is going to be behind closed doors. That’s not to say you can’t do a public inquiry when there’s highly classified intelligence. We’ve seen that with the Morin Inquiry. But the fact of the matter is a full public inquiry isn’t going to happen, so I’m not big on the idea. I was initially, but as this has become more and more politicized, I don’t see the purpose at the end of the day, and to answer your question, I don’t see there being a positive outcome coming.

What can and needs to be done in the interim to ensure we can counter any foreign interference attempts in upcoming elections?

We had some pretty good measures in place to prevent any foreign interference from becoming successful in undermining the integrity of the political process. The measures that the current government set up a number of years ago, including the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol, the panel of five, those highly placed deputy ministers, the SITE, the Security and Intelligence Threats to Election Task Force, the rapid response mechanism—those are still in place. At the end of the day, they worked. You had two independent assessments done by former deputy ministers, one by James Judd for the 2019 election, and the other by Morris Rosenberg for the 2021 election, who said that they effectively worked at the end of the day.

I don’t think anybody is questioning that these elections were free and fair. Yes, the Chinese were up to some shenanigans. Yes, the Chinese made a number of efforts. But at the end of the day, the elections worked, they were free and fair, and the government that was duly elected by Canadians got into power. Those processes work. Can you improve the way intelligence goes up through the system? Can the system be improved in a number of ways? Absolutely. But there isn’t any need for Canadians to start panicking that our elections are under threat in the sense that there’s an existential threat. That’s not the case.

The Chinese, the Russians, and others conduct foreign interference activities. The Chinese are particularly focused on the election process, and we have to be conscious and aware of those threats. But the system works reasonably well. We’ve learned some things from this process. We’ve learned some things from the leaks. We’ve learned some things from the Johnston report, we’ll learn more from the NSIRA report and the NSICOP report. But it’s pretty good, what we have in place right now, and it will continue to work as we move further down the line.

You have previously described the way in which important intelligence is flagged by CSIS as “ad hoc” and “inconsistent.” What needs to happen for the implementation of a more robust and consistent system, and how would such a system equally apply to other intelligence agencies as well?

I talked about this before PROC a couple of weeks ago. I flagged it and came right out of the gates and said, “Listen, the system is not perfect.” I knew it when I was there. I think other NSIAs, other heads of intelligence agencies, knew that there were problems. There were a couple of reports that came out, one late in 2021 by CIGI, and another by U Ottawa, which I co-authored in 2022, stating that there were a number of problems with intelligence information sharing inside the government.

I saw it firsthand as NSIA—the intelligence community produces a ton of intelligence. It’s unbelievable how much crosses your desk, and I said before PROC, that in my 18 months in the job, which is not a huge amount of time, I read somewhere between six to ten thousand documents. That’s a small fraction of the total amount that is circulated. All this intelligence is out there. There are signals intelligence and human intelligence, there are assessed reports done by organizations like the National Assessment Secretariat, the Intelligence Assessment Bureau, and CSIS. Senior decision-makers get absolutely overwhelmed.

The problem with this system up to now is that there is no formal way of flagging particularly important or actionable intelligence. Every deputy, every decision-maker, and everyone at the political level, whether in the PMO or a minister, looks at intelligence in a different way. There’s been a lack of a system whereby we actually flag particularly important intel that needs action. We don’t have the discussion on a regular basis at the bureaucratic, or the official level, and we don’t have the discussion at the political level on a consistent basis.

We need to have a system that flags the intel, so if a particularly important piece of intel is circulated by CSIS or by CSE, or by some of the other bodies that I just mentioned on the assessment side, you actually pick up the phone and call the relevant decision makers and say, “You should look carefully at this piece of intel,” or it is literally flagged with some kind of a note on it that indicates, “This is particularly important. This is particularly sensitive.” We need that formal system to do that.

Then we need to discuss it at senior levels inside the bureaucracy. I tried to take a step in that direction. When I was the NSIA, I created a body known as the DMIC, the Deputy Ministers Intelligence Committee, which was formerly the Deputy Ministers Intelligence Assessment Committee, which focused exclusively on strategic intelligence assessments. What I wanted the DMIC to do was to focus not on just assessed intel, but also raw intel—intel that was coming directly out of CSIS through human reports or CSE through intercepts that were important, that was actionable, and that we thought might need to be flagged for the political level.

We were having regular discussions every couple of weeks at the DMIC to dig our teeth into that and decide what to do with it. As I said before the Committee, it had only been up and running for six months by the time I left it, and it wasn’t perfect. I do not remember us having a discussion about all the intelligence related to Mr. Chong, for example. Clearly, it was not a success, but it was moving in the right direction. My understanding is that Jody Thomas, my successor, has now created a new body, which meets on a regular basis, and focuses exclusively on that type of intelligence as a sit-down amongst deputies. If that’s happening, that’s a good move, and we should continue to do it.

The last point that I’d make in terms of improving the system is that even if you flag the intel for the political level, you still have to have a discussion at the political level. The problem right now is that everybody’s being briefed in a siloed way—the NSIA briefs the Prime Minister, individual ministers get briefed by their organizations, Mendocino gets briefed by David Vigneault at CSIS, and Anand gets briefed by the head of CSE. You’re not getting all of the key ministers and the Prime Minister sitting down on a regular basis getting briefed on the same intel, with the same take on that intel, and then discussing what to do about it.

I’ve argued for a cabinet committee on national security—that’s what you need to have these discussions, so that the Prime Minister is getting briefed the way ministers are getting briefed, and he’s sitting down with ministers and having a discussion, like, “Okay, we just got briefed by CSIS on Foreign Affairs, and it looks like an MP or his family has been targeted. Let’s talk about the intel. Let’s see how credible it is. Let’s get the views of the agencies, but then let’s decide what we want to do.” You’re not having those discussions at the political level, not on a regular basis.

You need a body like that. We’re the only country in the Five Eyes that does not have some kind of national security-type committee or an agency chaired by the head of government. We need that as well to help improve the system. Those are just a few ideas about ways that we could channel the intelligence up through the bureaucracy into the political level on a more efficient, effective basis.

You’ve stated that the role of the national security intelligence advisor needs a second look, because of its limited authority in coordinating the security and intelligence community. Could you describe how the role could be improved or be made to be more efficient?

Absolutely. I don’t want to pick on the NSIA, I was the NSIA, so I’ve got a bit of personal experience, but we need to review the entire security and intelligence community. We need a comprehensive national security review, and we need a new national security strategy, which we haven’t had since 2004. We need to look at everything. What I suggested is that the NSIA in particular needs to have the hood popped to look at the engine and look at all the component pieces and see if it can work better. I suggested this because the NSIA is at the epicentre of the security and intelligence system, the security and intelligence structure.

That position basically has three roles: 1) to provide intel and to advise on policy matters to the Prime Minister; 2) to try and coordinate the security and intelligence community inside Canada—so those 10 or 12 members of the core system, plus all the others as well; and 3) to work with allies, to work with the public, and to work with various stakeholders.

One of the problems is that the job has been around with its current moniker for about 20 years. There was a security and intelligence coordinator inside PCO before that, dating back to the late 20th century, but the NSIA position that came out of the national security policy in 2004—it’s been around for 20 years. In fact, it’s the 20th anniversary next year. Let’s take a look back and see what its strengths and weaknesses have been. And let’s take a look forward in terms of the current security environment, which I think everybody agrees is dangerous and unpredictable. Is it equipped to take on those challenges both at home and overseas?

One of the problems I’ve had with the NSIA role is that each incumbent has approached the position a bit differently. I just told you the three roles for me, but you could ask another national security adviser from the past and they go, well, I focused on this, or I focused on that—they may fundamentally agree with those three roles, but they might add one or two others, or they might subtract one that I had. Maybe they didn’t deal a lot with outside stakeholders. You need some consistency in terms of the approach and consistency in terms of what they control.

You don’t always have a big sandbox to play in as part of the NSIA role. In the past, NSAs, as they were known then, didn’t have the ‘intelligence’ part of the title. Some NSAs only had the Security Intelligence Secretariat and IAS report to them, they didn’t have the Foreign and Defence Policy Advisor reporting up to them. Then that was changed a number of years ago by an NSA and that’s the case of it for Jody Thomas right now, as the current NSIA. She has both of those positions reporting up, both the domestic and the international sides.

For me, I only had the domestic piece primarily on the security and intelligence side, I didn’t have the Foreign and Defence Policy Advisor reporting up to me, which in retrospect, I think was a mistake. So just some consistency there—are you going to have that full gamut or not? Are you going to have the resources to support the job at the end of the day? If it’s only the security and intelligence secretariat, that’s only about 15-20 people. It’s incredibly small.

The current NSIAs gamut has expanded quite a bit, she has emergency management under her now, she has a deputy NSIA that has just been appointed, and she has a foreign interference advisor under her as well. It’s like an accordion. Over the last 20 years, it’s been expanded, and sometimes it’s been contracted. Get some consistency in that regard, make sure that you’ve got the right number of resources. Look at the authorities for the NSIAs. Right now, the NSIA doesn’t have a lot of authority.

Some of the position holders in the past will tell you, “I was okay, I had enough authority, I could convince, I could control, I could invoke the name of the Prime Minister.” But others, such as myself, found that their hands were sometimes tied, they were frustrated trying to get people to do things, because you could basically say to the NSIA, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to do that.” And in some respects, that’s understandable because DMs all have their accountabilities up to their individual ministers, so they can’t be taking orders from other deputy ministers. But the NSIA is a special role and you’ve got to acknowledge that. It’s a special role without any legislative basis. Though for most deputy ministers their positions are enshrined in the department’s legislation, the NSIA has no legislation. Positions at the centre traditionally are not in legislation, only the clerk is in the legislation, deputy secretaries, etc. We need to look at that.

Over the last 20 years or so, the job has been up and down and swinging from left to right in terms of roles, responsibilities, mandates, authorities, etc. After 20 years of experience, what do we want this job to do? Let’s have a clear sense of how we want it to move forward, in a world that is so complicated, that it is so challenging we need a strong national security and intelligence adviser. Do you want to change the structure a bit at PCO? You’ve got an NSIA who does policy and intelligence—you don’t usually combine those two, you have someone provide the intelligence, and the policy side is the decisionmaker working on that intelligence and briefing up to the Prime Minister.

Right now, you have the NSIA wearing both hats. I probably spent more time with my intelligence hat on than my policy hat. That can be difficult at times, and a lot of other countries have looked at our model and gone, does that work? Because that’s not the way you traditionally do it. You don’t mix policy and intelligence.

Do you want to create a figure like you have in the U.S.—a director of national intelligence at the centre, who brings in all the intel from across the system and integrates it, and then reports it up to the Prime Minister or reports it up to a Cabinet Committee, with a dotted line to the NSIA? We’d have that freedom to produce independent intelligence and then have the NSIA deputy ministers working off that.

That’s something worth exploring. Not everyone’s going to support it—people say, “Well, it may work in the U.S. system, but it’s not going to work in the Canadian system.” But it might lessen the workload for the NSIA, and it might clarify the accountabilities of the NSIA, about policy versus intelligence. Most importantly, it would help solve that information-sharing issue, because again, it’s the siloed intel going up, you need it fused at the centre with a stronger capability within PCO to move it up.

Do you have any final thoughts about any of the subjects we have covered, or is there anything you believe is missing from ongoing public discourse right now on issues of interference, the special rapporteur, or public inquiry that you would like to speak to?

The last point that I’d make, and it’s the point I made to PROC, is I’m glad that we’re having a debate on national security publicly. I’m glad that we’re having a debate on intelligence because, as I’ve said on many occasions, we don’t have the most mature security intelligence culture in Canada or in government. It’s been a long time since we’ve aired all this publicly, so it’s great that we’re finally doing it.

I have two issues with the way the debate is currently being conducted. The first is that it’s horrible that it had to occur through the leaking of intelligence. I want to go on the record to say that I condemn in the strongest possible terms whoever leaked this information. This is not the way to do it. It undermines national security, it gives comfort to hostile state actors, and it potentially puts lives at risk. This is not the way to do it. We need to do it in a more methodical, thought-out way with proper processes and not have it be so politicized.

Because of the way this information has come out, it’s so politicized. Now, it’s all about scoring political points. It’s become a bit of a debacle. It’s become less and less about our national security and security intelligence, and more about parties taking shots at each other and personalities becoming front and centre.

It’s very unfortunate that for the last couple of months, David Johnston has become the issue and not the future of national security in Canada. That’s really unfortunate. You can take shots at the government for choosing David Johnston and you can take shots at David Johnston for accepting the offer, but I would make a plea to move beyond that now. I hope we don’t go with a public inquiry, but I have a feeling that’s where we’re going to go. But let’s stop looking back. Let’s stop looking to blame, to shame senior officials and politicians—we know what the problems are, let’s focus on the future and fixing the problems that we have.

Again, I refer to the two reports that came out, from Ottawa U with myself and Thomas Juneau as co-authors, and the CIGI report with Wesley Wark and Aaron Shull, which highlighted almost all of these problems. If people had read those reports, then they would not be shocked and surprised by what they’re hearing. These problems have been there for a while.

Let’s focus on going after the problems as they exist. Let’s have a full review of our national security policy and a new security policy statement. Let’s take a look at the specific tools that need to be changed, including updating the CSIS Act and information sharing and all of that—let’s fix those problems.

Let’s improve the governance in terms of a cabinet committee or NSIA. Let’s improve the transparency of the system because that’s also one of the problems right now, we do not have enough transparency—we don’t have public threat reports., we don’t respond to NSICOP reports, we don’t brief parliamentarians on the threats, etc. Let’s focus on fixing the system and looking forward as opposed to looking back and looking for scapegoats. That’s not the way to go.

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