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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

How would you describe your job?

My life is a meeting after a meeting after a meeting. It's important that Defence know what Foreign Affairs is doing knows what [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service] is doing, what [the Communications Security Establishment] is doing. At least at a general level. That's one thing that I do, old-fashioned co-ordination.

The other thing I do within the Privy Council Office is co-ordinate advice to the prime minister on national security. I brief him, not necessarily personally. But I ensure that briefings take place.

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We do push things to the prime minister for the agencies, but the man has only so many hours in the day. ... He doesn't care if the intelligence comes from CSE or Foreign Affairs. More often, the prime ministers are interested in trends with broader context.

How many people work for you?

I think I have something in the order of 135 to 140 people in the Privy Council Office. Which is fairly large for PCO.

When I asked people, "What is Fadden's reputation," someone said: "He's not above saying, 'Do better.'"

Am I demanding? Yes. Because a lot of the stuff that comes to me goes directly to ministers and prime ministers. You don't want to give them stuff that's not good. I do occasionally say: "You've got to work on this again. It's not broad enough, you've forgotten this, you've forgotten that."

Do your briefs consist of bullet points or 25-page reports?

No prime minister would want 25 pages on intelligence.

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The intelligence assessment secretariat, which is within my little group, produces a variety of products, including a daily one. And they do longer-term things that are reviewed by a committee of deputies that I chair.

Not a lot of it is more than a couple of pages, to be honest.

How much do you adjust for each prime minister?

Stephen Harper was affected by the fact he was a wartime prime minister. He had to go to [Canadian Forces Base] Trenton 150 or 160 times, [when the bodies of Canadian Forces soldiers were returned from Afghanistan]. It affects a prime minister, or a minister, or any human being.

Justin Trudeau, I think, comes to office with a very strongly held view that national-security is a core responsibility of the prime minister.

Does he look at it in exactly the same way? No. Why have a change if he did? So the stuff we give him is slightly different. ... He requires more context, he has a slightly different focus.

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The Ministry of Public Safety got $4-billion in 2005. It got $8-billion in 2015. Are we any safer?

Successive governments and officials have done what is reasonable to be done to try to increase safety.

One of the other things we underestimate, including myself, is the capacity of terror organizations to learn and to change. ISIS is not made up of a bunch of yokels.

Do I think more resources than was the case five or 10 years ago should have been devoted to terrorism? Absolutely.

Do I think that some of the laws needed to be changed? Yes. Do all of them have to be used everyday? No.

The RCMP and CSIS say they are run off their feet trying to keep up with jihadis.

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I think CSIS currently thinks they have 60 or 80 returnees from Syria or Iraq.

Some of them come back so disgusted they will never be a national-security threat. Some people are in the middle, but all they want to do is help in a small way. And other people, a small, small number, want to contribute to the ongoing jihad.

The problem that CSIS has, along with the Mounties, is it takes a while to distinguish in what category you put people.

The real risk is you might pick the wrong ones to really keep an eye on.

Are the operational agencies focusing on jihadis to the exclusion of everything else?

I certainly don't think they are doing it to the exclusion of everything else. But I do think the two agencies are being truthful when they say they are taking some resources and reallocating them.

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You need to have people who have basic intelligence skills for CSIS and basic police skills from the police and you retrain them as you go. Both intelligence and police were given additional resources in the previous budget, Mr. Harper's last one. But it's not going to benefit them for two or three years.

In the meantime, they have reallocated.

Is [CSIS director Michel] Coulombe saying he's going to close down counterintelligence? No. I think if he was sitting here, he would say he's getting worried a little bit.

Are we worried about an ISIS-directed operation in Canada?

I think our biggest worry today is ISIS-inspired. You know, we're lucky in many ways, We have two oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, that distance us from the Middle East.

They [ISIS] would much rather hit Europe, where there are a greater number of potential players, or the United States, which remains everyone's biggest opponent.

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I would worry more about inspiration than direction. Europe has to worry more about direction.

Eighteen months ago, you were at a meeting in the Langevin Block when Michael Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Parliament ....

He clearly was inspired and not directed. What it did for us was emphasize that the protection we provide to Parliament, and its members, and ministers and the prime minister, needs a severe fix. It took the events you referred to last year to enact a budget bill for a consolidated protective service for Parliament Hill. It reinforced the need again for police forces and security forces to work together.

What were you doing at the PCO on Sept. 11, 2001?

I was sitting in my office doing paperwork. I had the TV on, and I looked up saw the first plane go into the twin tower. I said to myself, "I wonder how did this get on a movie channel?" That was my intuitive reaction. Then the second plane hit.

I certainly was a very busy bunny until Christmas. I was deputy clerk, and counsel, and intelligence and security co-ordinator.

Parliament passed the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act in three months. Does the bureaucracy always have legislation like that ready to go?

We really do try to have legislation ready for where there is a window of opportunity.

Someone like author Naomi Klein would call this the Shock Doctrine: the security apparatchiks undermining democracy.

I don't see how that's the case. Because it's our jobs to be ready when ministers want things done. I can assure you that ministers don't always take what we give them. Let me tell you, ministers and the prime minister looked at the bill from A to Z and back again. Nobody was trying to pull a fast one.

Rick Mosley was a civil servant in Justice working with you on that bill. Years later, you're the CSIS director, he's a Federal Court judge. He gives CSIS a new warrant power, but later rules CSIS pulled a fast one to get it.

I think I'll pass on commenting on that one because it is too immediate.

But I think it's true in journalism, the beat that you get affects what you say and what you think. It's true in Ottawa.

I had a different view in CSIS than I have here. At CSIS, my job was to find information to try and prevent bad things from happening. My mandate now is absolutely to support that, but it is to worry about the legal, the ethical, and other considerations, perhaps with greater emphasis than when I was at CSIS.

Are there things you lose sleep over?

One of the rationales for this job is to encourage, incite, insist on the sharing of information related to national security. We get a lot of high-level relatively inchoate bits of information: Somebody is planning things. The problem is that very rarely is there enough specificity for someone to do anything about it.

What worries me in the immediate sense is that for one of these, we didn't have enough detail. Something might have been in Department X or in Agency Y, but we couldn't pull it together. Having to explain, "I'm sorry prime minister, but this happened, Department X had it, but for some reason we couldn't pull it together. …"

You got a lot of heat for talking about foreign-influenced politicians in 2010. Do you regret doing that?

I think if I had to do it [again], I would do it differently. I think I would choose different words.

On the other hand, I technically said something like "some measure of influence." I never used the word "control."...

To be honest, I think that your colleagues in the media, around the world, vindicated what I said. Subsequent to that, over the next 18 to 24 months, a lot of this came out...

I think what I said was truthful, but I certainly would have said it differently.

How exposed is Canada to cyberattacks?

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

Governments have gone a long way to protecting their own assets. The real risk is the cyberattacks on the private sector. There's a not insignificant amount of intellectual property stolen from countries in the West.

Regarding the 2014 hack against the National Research Council, was it wise for Canada to call out China?

The view at the time was there was relative clarity about where all this originated. In the context of relative clarity, you have got to call a spade a spade.

So is China a friend or enemy of Canada?

I'm a believer personally in realpolitik . You have to start by taking the world as it is.

China is a force to be reckoned with, the second-largest economy on the planet. It is a significant regional power.

It does a whole bunch of things we don't like, to call the spade a shovel. The government is going to have to decide where the balance is.

It is a bit like Canada selling armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. Didn't you shake the hand of the Saudi King?

Saudi Arabia does a lot of things we very strongly disagree with. They have quite a different perspective on human rights … on the other hand, they are a significant partner in counterterrorism.

I was there participating in an international meeting on counterterrorism. But to my surprise – I kid you not – in a car by my host I was brought to another building and brought to the King's palace. And I was introduced to the King.

I was just an instrument. They were sending a message to Canada we were important in counterterrorism: "We appreciate your co-operation, please tell your government we appreciate this."

What happens when you walk out the door of the PCO?

My wife is organizing a little party. The real question for me is the following days and weeks. I'm going to go from being one of the better-informed people in town to almost being without oxygen.

What do you do to relax?

To relax I read fiction.

And I don't read spy novels. I prefer actually historical mysteries. There's a series about a 1930s detective from England called Maisie Dobbs … it's very light.

I try not to read stuff outside relating to my work if I can avoid it.

One of the problems with this job is there is not a lot of good news in it. In my case, they don't hear from me a lot unless there is bad news. So you got to, to some degree, compartmentalize. I do it by reading.

I get enough [BlackBerry] PINs and e-mails outside of working hours that I don't want to be thinking about this if I can avoid it.

How old are you? And are you done working?

64 … I hope not. But I don't know what I'm going to do.

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

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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