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Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) Chief John Adams tours CSEC's new headquarter in Ottawa on Dec. 21, 2010. (DAVE CHAN/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) Chief John Adams tours CSEC's new headquarter in Ottawa on Dec. 21, 2010. (DAVE CHAN/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

CSEC

Canada's little-known spy agency comes out into the open Add to ...

At a time when most government agencies are cutting and slashing, a little-known spy agency led by a Rhodes Scholar is the envy of Ottawa for its planned billion-dollar headquarters.

A rising force in the national-security apparatus, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) is an electronic-eavesdropping agency that gathers intelligence from abroad. Led by 68-year-old military veteran John Adams, the agency keeps its operations quiet, reporting only to Canada's military and civilian leadership.

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For the first time since he took over the agency in 2005, Mr. Adams has discussed CSEC's mission and future, which includes plans for an $880-million headquarters housing hundreds of mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists by 2015.

News of the planned 72,000 square-metre compound is raising eyebrows around the national capital, given few people outside of government know what CSEC is or what it does.

But "if you were to ask the Canadian Forces if there is anyone that has saved Canadian lives in Afghanistan, they would point to us," Mr. Adams told The Globe and Mail. He said that well over half of the "actionable intelligence" that soldiers use in Afghanistan comes from his agency.

This work is distinct from that done by a far better known spy agency -the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

The difference between the two boils down to tradecraft and jurisdiction.

CSIS - Canada's human-intelligence, or "HumInt" agency - has its people and agents train their actual eyes and ears on security threats inside the country.

CSEC - the "signals-intelligence" or "SigInt" counterpart - relies almost wholly on technology to hear what people are saying abroad (spying on Canadians is illegal). Since being formed in the 1940s, this agency has rarely told anyone the fruits of its findings, save for its two masters - the Department of National Defence and the Privy Council Office.

On paper, the two agencies' mandates don't overlap, but in practise their operations are running together more than ever. That's why the new CSEC complex is being built next to CSIS' current headquarters - and why architects are planning to install a glass bridge connecting the two.

As envisioned, the seven-building CSEC complex will be the equivalent of a 90-storey skyscraper turned on its side - a highly secure compound outfitted with the latest high-tech gear. Two nearby electrical generating stations will power the agency's computers, which suck in millions of conversations from around the world each day and scour them for intelligence information.

CSEC's 1,700 staff and $300-million budget are double what they were a decade ago. Yet the agency's bricks-and-mortar surroundings have been neglected. Some staff complain that a wall-sized mainframe computer has even fallen through an old floor. The current complex, a scattering of Cold War-era buildings near Carleton University, can no longer suck enough energy off the grid to sustain operations.

"We've run out of power," said Mr. Adams, whose facilities use about as much energy as a small town. "We've got 700 people buried in a basement."

Now the plan is to bring staff out of their subterranean cloisters and into collaborative work spaces, ones where cryptologists and engineers work together in bright rooms surrounded by daylight and foliage.

The plan doesn't just envision $880-million in construction costs. According to a union representing CSEC employees, there is also a somewhat unique arrangement that will commit Ottawa to spend up to $5-billion more over the next 34 years. These costs are part of a "public-private partnership" - incorporating a complex mix of debt-servicing costs, standard-operating payments and an unusual facilities-management deal with a private consortium.

Still in the final stages of negotiation, the project will demand significant resources at a time when CSEC's parent organization - the Defence Department - hopes to slash thousands of jobs and a billion dollars from its budget. As a result, the secretive SigInt agency is finding itself under the unfamiliar glare of public scrutiny. "They put themselves in a goldfish bowl, building a building with that much, in these times," said John MacLennan, who heads the Union of National Defence Employees.

But Canadians need to understand how much raw data the spy agency handles - and how much more it's going to have to handle in the future, Mr. Adams argues. He makes a case that the new complex in Ottawa's East End is vital for national security.

Already, he said his staff process the informational equivalent of a WikiLeaks-sized data dump of State Department cables every day - or more transactions than all of Canada's big banks combined. His staff burn through megawatts of brainpower and electrical energy as their computers crunch unfathomable amounts of information.

Nothing is final, but the new headquarters is envisioned as a veritable puzzle palace for Canadian cryptographers. Part of the inspiration comes from high-tech companies, who have found that good things happen when staff are forced to work together - and when they play as hard as they work.

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