Richard Fadden, the director of Canada's spy agency, displayed reckless judgment and poor leadership when he declared on television that cabinet ministers in two provinces - and some municipal politicians - are acting as agents of influence for foreign governments.
He declined to identify them, or their spymaster, though he hinted broadly that China is known to target members of its diaspora, as part of espionage schemes, and lobby them to act in China's interests.
The timing of this statement couldn't be worse, on the eve of the G8/G20 summits, with the arrival of Hu Jintao, China's President, and other leaders. Not only has he impugned China's name, but Mr. Fadden has needlessly placed all Canadian municipal and provincial politicians who belong to diaspora communities under suspicion. He also implicated some public servants in British Columbia, saying they are putting the interests of a foreign government ahead of Canada's.
It is not the job of Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which must be above politics, to air such sensitive and serious allegations.
Mr. Fadden, a career bureaucrat who acted as the intelligence security co-ordinator following the 9/11 attacks, said in the interview he was in the process of strategizing with the "centre," the Privy Council Office, about the best way to inform the two provinces involved in the problem.
But by going public before a policy decision has been made, he has exposed the agency to charges of "being a political tool of the government," says Wesley Wark, a security expert at the University of Toronto. Even if Mr. Fadden's comments were authorized, he still should not have made them.
Adding to the confusion, Mr. Fadden tried to backtrack yesterday. He issued a statement noting that foreign interference is a "common occurrence," and saying he had not apprised the PCO of the cases, or deemed them to be of sufficient concern to alert provincial authorities.
If the cases aren't serious enough to share with his political masters, why mention them on national television? Why say he is talking to the PCO, only to later deny this? These contradictory statements weaken Mr. Fadden's credibility, and leave the public confused about the true threat that foreign espionage poses, and the success of the agency's counterespionage strategy.
The premiers of both Ontario and B.C. also appeared confused, and called on Mr. Fadden to elaborate on his earlier assertions. B.C.'s Gordon Campbell said that in a country that takes pride in its diversity and multiculturalism, "the head of an organization of this import" should "substantiate those sorts of comments."
There are, no doubt, serious security issues at play. Foreign governments do monitor and attempt to infiltrate Canada's diaspora communities. At least five countries, including China and Middle Eastern ones, actively recruit foreign nationals who study on the campuses of Canadian universities, according to Mr. Fadden. It is possible, as he claims, that public servants have also been approached and have even shifted their policies as a reflection of their involvement with, or attachment to, foreign countries.
However, the way to dismantle these threats is not with ill-conceived remarks that spread alarm and a sense of distrust about public officials, particularly those from ethnic minorities. The role of CSIS is to advise government about perceived security threats. It is government's role to respond to those threats as it sees fit.