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Richard Fadden, National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is retiring after 39 years in the public service.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Richard Fadden spent his career in Ottawa's shadows learning terrifying things. Now, he wonders how he is going to cope with no longer being looped in. "I'm going to go from being one of the better-informed people in town to almost being without oxygen," he confides.

As a CSIS spymaster, and as a deputy defence minister, and as a national-security adviser to three prime ministers, the 64-year-old Mr. Fadden has been consumed with keeping looming threats to Canada at bay.

On the eve of his retirement at the end of March as the official national security adviser (NSA) to the prime minister, he reflected in an interview with The Globe and Mail on his unique and colourful career.

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He has the résumé of an eminence grise versed in the secret world of spying, but in person, his cardigans and sometimes folksy turns of phrase give him the air of a Mr. Rogers.

The job of the NSA is essentially to be a sponge. Working with 140 staff to absorb the intelligence generated by federal agencies, the security adviser gets an exhaustive daily rundown of everything that could go wrong for Canada and Canadians, and distills it to a summary for the prime minister.

Now, as Mr. Fadden prepares to leave that world, he offers a rapid-fire assessment on some key security questions:

Are Islamic State terrorists in the Mideast going to send terrorist squads to Canada, as they did in France and Belgium?

"I would worry more about [IS] inspiration than direction," he says. "We're lucky ... we have two oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, that distance us from the Middle East."

What about foreign hackers, for whom geography means nothing?

"I would put cyberattacks almost on the same level as terrorism."

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Are there threats Canadians are not talking enough about?

"The impact on national security relating to the mass migration of people."

Mr. Fadden has basically helped quarterback the wider Canadian security bureaucracy over the past 15 years, from the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks in the United States to Michael Zehaf-Bibeau – the terrorist gunman whom burgeoning budgets could not keep from storming Parliament Hill in 2014.

"You hope that you can reduce the risk, which can never, ever, be reduced to zero," Mr. Fadden says.

Recent times for him have been like moving from an armed conflict to an armistice. Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper "was affected by the fact he was a wartime prime minister. He had to go to Trenton 150 or 160 times," Mr. Fadden says. (The bodies of the 159 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan were returned to Canada through the Canadian Forces Base at Trenton, Ont.)

The government's footsoldiers have long since been pulled out of Afghanistan, but were recently redeployed to Syria, where they are being told to stay behind the front lines training local forces to battle Islamic State terrorists. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in power six months ago promising to pull Canada's fighter jets out of the Middle East (which he did) and dial back the powers of Canada's spies (still pending.)

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Asked about Mr. Trudeau's style, Mr. Fadden says federal security bureaucrats take such changes in stride. "Does he look at it [national security] in exactly the same way? No. Why have a change if he did?" he says. "So the stuff we give him is slightly different ... he requires more context, he has a slightly different focus."

Mr. Fadden joined the civil service 40 years ago as a foreign-service officer posted to Ghana. When he returned to Ottawa, he gravitated to the Privy Council Office, or the "centre" in the vernacular of the Canadian government. Its connection to the political staff in the Prime Minister's Office makes it the hub around which all other bureaucracies revolve.

His first taste of clout came during his second PCO stint. It was the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and he was co-ordinating security and intelligence issues on behalf of prime minister Jean Chrétien. The twin towers were still smouldering when the Liberal government asked the bureaucracy to draft omnibus security legislation that could be passed by Christmas.

"I certainly was a very busy bunny," Mr. Fadden recalls of that time.

The 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act lowered the burden of proof for police to lock up terrorism suspects. It also transformed the Communications Security Establishment, Canada's electronic-eavesdropping agency, from a Cold War relic to a supercharged surveillance machine. The bill sailed through Parliament, although it drew the ire of some academics and civil libertarians.

In the mid-2000s, Mr. Fadden headed up the federal immigration and food-inspection bureaucracies, but national security drew him back.

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In 2009, he was chosen to run the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, at a time when terrorist-hunting intelligence officers were keen on pushing their spying powers to their legal limits. (And at times, they went well past those parameters, according to some judges and watchdog agencies.)

In 2010, in a televised interview before the G20 meeting in Toronto, Mr. Fadden spoke about municipal and provincial politicians who "are under, at least, the general influence of a foreign government."

He did not name anyone, but many observers interpreted the comments as a veiled criticism of China.

All he says today is that he does not regret speaking out – although he says in hindsight that he might choose different words today. "To be honest, I think that your colleagues in the media, around the world, vindicated what I said. … A lot of this came out," he said. "I think what I said was truthful, but I certainly would have said it differently."

Mr. Harper did not seem to mind. He kept Mr. Fadden at CSIS for three more years. Then, in 2013, he brought him to the Department of National Defence as a deputy minister.

A year later, Mr. Harper broke with convention and publicly called out China for alleged cyber-espionage against a federal research agency. The intelligence came from CSE, which is an extension of the defence ministry, then being run by Mr. Fadden.

"In the context of relative clarity, you have got to call a spade a spade," Mr. Fadden says, adding that it is rare for signals spies to be able to attribute such attacks to a particular adversary.

In early 2015, Mr. Fadden was made Mr. Harper's official national security adviser, when the Conservative government was rushing through its own security law. Bill C-51 aimed to give CSIS new powers to "disrupt" terrorism before it happened. Federal security agents of all stripes were given freer rein to swap data, too.

Opposition MPs and civil libertarians cried foul, but the majority Conservatives passed the bill quickly.

From his perspective, Mr. Fadden says such powers are needed. "One of the rationales for this job is to encourage, incite, insist on the sharing of information," he says. And what people in his position dread most, he adds, is the prospect of telling the prime minister that intelligence about a threat was collected, but not pieced together in time to prevent carnage.

Knowledge may be power, but he is loath to suggest he ever held very much of the latter. Giving deference where it is due, he says elected politicians, not unelected functionaries, rule in Canada.

"I don't think I have any power," says Mr. Fadden, pointing out that the NSA's role does not exist in statute.

Then again, "I act as the agent of the Prime Minister. And that's sort of helpful."

As to his future plans, he has promised his wife that, after years of being tied to his work, he will spend the first months of his retirement at home, reading historical mystery novels.

"If I don't want to get divorced, I'm not going to do anything for four or five months."

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