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Leak about CSIS deemed embarrassing, but innocuous

Intelligence insiders characterize a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable regarding Canada's spy service as a politically embarrassing, but mostly innocuous, data dump that is unlikely to jeopardize national security.

That's because the disclosure is unlikely to undermine Ottawa's key relations with Washington intelligence agencies, who supply Canada with the bulk of its most crucial information. Instead, the fallout will be mostly domestic - possibly reinforcing a growing siege mentality within a spy service that frequently sees its attempts at candid conversation backfire, insiders say.

"This is going to cause them to hunker down a little bit," said Ron Atkey, a lawyer and long-time national-security watcher, who said Canadian Security Intelligence Service officials will be guarded in conversations with anyone but their most trusted allies.

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Yet there are two areas of great sensitivity that the Conservative government will now be pressed to address in Parliament and in public. The first is the precise nature of CSIS's ongoing discussions with Iran. The second is the degree of foreknowledge CSIS might have had about a Taliban terrorist attack that freed hundreds of hardened prisoners from a Kandahar jail.

The Harper government has imposed a communications ban on these matters. Public-safety officials have not been authorized to discuss them.

On Monday, the WikiLeaks website, which is in the midst of publishing 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, revealed a State Department official's impression of his candid conversation with CSIS director Jim Judd from 2008.

Before retiring last year, Mr. Judd cultivated a reputation for being guarded in his public conversations, but brutally frank in private. He is said to have openly whinged about the Canadian courts and public being stuck in an "Alice in Wonderland" parallel reality where terrorism is no great threat.

Defence lawyers and Liberal MPs seized on the remark as a smear - "defamatory nonsense," in the words Paul Cavalluzzo, a prominent national-security lawyer - but many CSIS watchers said the quip was vintage Jim Judd. It is also somewhat predictable given the spy agency's private gripes that it has fallen victim to a "judicial jihad."

Not given to sunny prognostications, Mr. Judd did have some good news for the State Department. He apparently said Canada has integrated Muslims far more successfully than certain European countries, depriving extremist recruiters of the grievances that can accompany ghettoization.

But gathering intelligence abroad is fraught with problems. CSIS was revealed to have an ongoing dialogue with Iranian intelligence - a channel that is potentially of enormous value given the Shia theocracy's covert attempts to develop nuclear weapons and - in Mr. Judd's assessment - "bleed" NATO forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.

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Yet some MPs questioned Tuesday whether Canada should be talking to Iranian intelligence at all.

Others were particularly intrigued by another one Mr. Judd's alleged assertions. The cable suggests that CSIS had foreknowledge of a terrorist jailbreak in Afghanistan but could not prevent it.

"If he's suggesting they saw it coming, I'd like to know in what sense they saw it coming," Liberal MP Byron Wilfert told The Globe and Mail. "There was what, 800 that escaped? ... Many of them Canada had to deal with because we had rounded them up initially."

Mr. Wilfert said he hoped to learn the specific intelligence exchanges that predated attack that occurred in the spring of 2008. That was when Taliban suicide bombers blew holes into the Sarpoza prison in Kandahar.

Mr. Judd "commented that CSIS had seen Sarpoza coming, and its link to the Quetta [Taliban]Shura in Pakistan, but could not get a handle on the timing," according to the U.S. cable. At the time, the Conservative government refused to acknowledge any possible intelligence failures.

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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