Employees at Canada’s fast-growing electronic spy service are sounding alarms about possible misuse of funds, conflicts of interest and financial mismanagement.
Some have also tried to blow the whistle about “improper contractor security screening,” “questionable contractor invoicing,” “unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information,” and “non-compliance with CSEC’s values,” according to recent “internal disclosure of wrongdoing” reports obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The number of intelligence-agency employees at Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) seeking “ethical advice” from a senior official is also at a record high, according to the documents. Employees at CSEC, which is entrusted to spy on foreign communications for the federal government, sought advice 18 times in 2012 – 16 times over unspecified “conflict of interest” issues. The previous year, 12 ethics-related questions arose.
The records highlight the thorny issue of raising concerns in the secret world of intelligence gathering. In 2007, the Conservative government passed the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act in the name of protecting whistle-blowers within the federal bureaucracy. But while that law empowers a federal integrity commissioner to investigate employee complaints arising in dozens of departments, CSEC was given an exemption in favour of a parallel system that keeps such matters within the agency.
In CSEC, a “senior officer for disclosure of wrongdoing and reprisal protection” acts as a sounding board for employees who wish to air their own ethical quandaries, or to speak about alleged lapses in judgment by their colleagues or bosses.
These complaints are logged in annual reports, but specific details are withheld.
Findings of ethical wrongdoing are rare within CSEC. During the three years of released records, the senior official in charge of ethics made just one formal finding of wrongdoing.
The Canadian Press reported this spring that whistle-blower complaints of unspecified “asset misuse” at CSEC resulted in stepped-up financial training and monitoring.
The senior officer in charge of ethics frequently points out that complaints of unethical behaviour are not proof of unethical behaviour. “I do not suspect the increase in [the] number of disclosures suggests, in any way, that the incidence of unethical conduct is on the rise. Quite the contrary,” says a report from 2010.
A spokesman for the agency says that very few of CSEC’s 2,200 staff members ever make complaints, and that most of the ones that are filed are unsubstantiated.
“Some were simple procedural errors and others were misunderstandings,” said Andrew Mclaughlin in an e-mail, adding that the “characterizations listed in the report were made by those people bringing them forward.”
Requests for ethical advice “could be as simple as asking about post-employment guidelines,” he said.
Over the past decade, CSEC’s budget has risen from $210-million to its current $829-million a year. Much of the increase is attributable to the agency’s now nearly complete $1-billion headquarters, a project that will have a private-sector consortium manage the new headquarters for the next 30 years.
CSEC is the Canadian equivalent to, and close ally of, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).
The American spy service has been embroiled in scandal over the past year, ever since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began leaking top-secret documents to journalists.
Now living in Russia as the U.S. seeks to arrest him on espionage charges, Mr. Snowden continues to be the source of dozens of revealing leaks.
During the past week, it was revealed that he obtained tens of thousands of NSA-intercepted communications, passing them on to the Washington Post. He has also emerged as the man behind a leaked paper trail showing the NSA spied on e-mails associated with leaders of U.S.-based Muslim organizations.
Mr. Snowden defends his leaks of top-secret material by saying that the NSA lacks sufficiently robust mechanisms to protect whistle-blowers – and Americans’ constitutional rights.