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Screen capture of CSIS recruiting video. (YouTube)
Screen capture of CSIS recruiting video. (YouTube)

Canada’s spy agency reveals real-life agents in cinematic recruiting videos Add to ...

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has released a series of recruitment videos onto YouTube, videos that feature testimonials from real-life spies.

The clips were posted last week, but released without any publicity. To date, the YouTube videos have drawn only a few hundred viewers apiece.

In the clips, each of which lasts a minute or two, CSIS intelligence officers are shown striding purposefully to urgent (but fictional) assignments, as orchestral music plays and time-lapse video speeds up street scenes.

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Such recruitment videos have never been released before by the spy service, one of only a few federal departments actively looking to bolster its ranks.

The point is to use social media to demystify CSIS and glamorize the art of spying, especially as real-life recruiters make the rounds of job fairs and university campuses this fall. Those considering careers in espionage are tipped to the YouTube videos, which are meant to serve as a handy reference points for various skill sets.

British author John le Carré famously broke down his fictional spies into “lamplighters,” “scalphunters,” and “wranglers.” But Canada’s spy service appears to have a more prosaic division of labour. The YouTube videos yield crash courses in the specializations of “surveillants,” “recruiters,” “duty officers” “security screening officers” and “IT professionals.”

What’s most surprising is that the clips do not feature actors. Used instead are real-life CSIS employees, who identity themselves by first name only, and who may or may not really do the jobs they are portrayed as doing.

This marketing tactic is novel, given that all spy services are by nature publicity-shy, especially CSIS – which has often fought to guard its sources and methods, and to keep the images and identities of its intelligence officers secret.

Here, then, are the links to each of the five videos released to date, with a short written synopsis on each.

Andrea the Surveillant

City: Montreal

Catchphrase: “I’m a follower and a wallflower and I’m good at it.”

A “target” female mysteriously arrives at Trudeau Airport in Montreal at precisely 10:34 p.m. She is blonde, 5-foot-5, 40, and carrying a suitcase. She is being closely watched.

Whatever could the Trail of the Apparent Soccer Mom mean?

CSIS’s Andrea spends her morning presiding over a meeting, where her subordinates say things like the “target” had “prior contact with individuals known to the service.” The evening is spent overseeing a team of six or eight snoops.

The “Physical Surveillance Unit” hangs watchfully around airports and subways, carrying long-lens cameras and keeping bikes in their station wagons just in case they have to pursue on two wheels instead of four.

In the closing moments, the CSIS team spots its target woman conspicuously chucking a backpack into a waiting blue car.

Could the package be full of cash? Bomb components? School lunches? Sigh. The viewer is left hanging.

The takeaway: It can take between 10 to 20 intelligence operatives to keep eyes-on surveillance of a single target for 24 hours a day. Watching people is labour-intensive work.

Allison the Recruiter

City: Vancouver

Catchphrase: “Intelligence officers need to be discrete.”

Allison sits around a Vancouver cafe reading The Globe and Mail (at least I hope it’s the Globe) until she gets a text message.

“Heads up. Target approaching… ETA 2 minutes”

She swings into action. Her surveillant colleagues must be helping out, because CSIS operatives are on a guy in a blue hoodie like white on rice. They know when Blue Hoodie steps on the Vancouver SkyTrain. They know when he steps off.

Allison approaches her target and befriends the future intelligence asset.

Then, she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a CSIS business card, as if to say: “Hey I just met you. And this is crazy. But here’s my number. So call me, maybe.”

But really, she doesn’t.

The takeaway: Good human sources are the lifeblood of intelligence work.

Shelly the IT Pro

City: Toronto

Catchphrase: “I’m a caretaker of one of Canada’s largest Top Secret information highways. Crashing is not an option. That’s our code.”

Information technology is a nebulous and arcane subject matter. You can’t really make short movies about a spy typing furiously on a keyboard, can you?

So you have to feel for the director on this one. Shelly the IT Professional is shown taking a TTC streetcar to work, as Matrix-y bits of data float around in the ether, sometimes even evolving into floating flowcharts and the like.

The takeaway: Cybercrime, cyber-espionage and cyber war are growing, and this is a huge concern for governments. I mean, do you even know how badly the Department of Finance and Treasury Board were hacked a few years back? (You don’t? Oh, that’s right, Ottawa really played that one down. But it was pretty huge and it may have been China. You’ve at least heard of Stuxnet in Iran, right?)

Theresa the duty officer

City: Ottawa

Catchphrase: “Everyday I have to put my finger on the pulse of the world.”

The “global operations centre” in CSIS headquarters is abuzz with activity when the various functionaries look at satellite imagery.

Real-life spymaster Ray Boisvert (now retired) makes a cameo to pretend that a foreign spy agency has tipped CSIS to two terrorists aboard a ship headed to Montreal.

But … what’s this? Cinéma vérité! To better make its point, CSIS slides some real-life terrorism into its fictional video.

Police in body armour are shown arresting some of the so-called “Toronto 18” conspirators, a pair of skinny Mississauga teenagers who were caught unloading a cube van that they thought was full of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

Back in 2006, those suspects had been fooled into buying fake bomb-building chemicals from a government mole, who turned out to be a CSIS asset who was paid the equivalent of $4-million for arranging that sting and ...

Nevermind. Digressing here. Duty ops.

The takeaway: Canada is not immune to the threat of terrorism.

Patrick the Screener

City: Halifax

Catchphrase: “Chances are we’ve met.”

Fog descends on Halifax. Boats come and boats go. Cranes lift cargo out of the boats. Cars traverse bridges and borders.

Somewhere inside all this movement lurks a threat. Or threats. But where?

From a ferry, CSIS’s Patrick the Screener watches vigilantly as he prepares to interview suspected bad guys. Maybe he can see through the fog. The literal and figurative fog. The end.

The takeaway: Did you know that CSIS screened 200,000 citizenship applications last year? And 55,000 government employees for secret clearances? This amounts to a huge job that you hardly ever hear about unless the system goes awry. Like, say, senior Tamil Tigers allegedly sneak into Canada on a fishing boat. Or a former reporter for China’s state-run news service lands a job at the Privy Council Office.

This guest post is from Colin Freeze, who reports on national security for The Globe and Mail from Toronto.

 

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