Stephanie Carvin is an associate professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, and a former national security analyst with the Canadian government. Thomas Juneau is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
It is understandable that most of the discussion of David Johnston’s report on foreign interference has focused on his recommendation to not hold a public inquiry. Yet his conclusion that there are “serious shortcomings in the way intelligence is communicated and processed from security agencies through to government” deserves much more scrutiny.
For Canadians, this finding – along with revelations that ministers sometimes do not have access to classified systems in their offices, that binders of intelligence may be going unread, and that, even when intelligence is addressed, policymakers may simply not understand what is being presented to them – should be alarming.
Yet Mr. Johnston’s conclusions are consistent with our own research. Between 2018 and 2019, we conducted approximately 60 interviews with currently serving and retired officials and analysts in the Canadian government who had experience working in or with the national security community. We found that the performance of the intelligence community in providing relevant analytical support to its policy making and political clients has improved over the course of the previous decade. That said, there remains significant room for improvement, especially as the system struggles to keep up with evolving threats.
Based on our research, we suggest that the following areas could be addressed without legislative changes. It requires only the will to act.
First, after decades of benign neglect, Canada’s intelligence and national security culture and institutions are immature and unsophisticated. Intelligence is more often an afterthought, and frequently ignored in decision-making processes. One consequence is that relative to our Five Eyes partners, the flow of intelligence is dependent on personalities: Changes in leadership have disproportionate consequences on effectiveness.
One remedy here is more centralization. The National Security and Intelligence Advisor (NSIA) position does not have a large staff and has a limited ability to organize the community in line with government priorities. Providing it with a stronger ability to co-ordinate the activities of Canada’s many departments and agencies with national security responsibilities will ensure a more effective flow of information to senior policymakers.
Ideally, the NSIA should support a new national security committee of Cabinet, which does not currently exist. This would avoid some of the traps of the current system, which is too reactive and limits the scope for forward thinking at the political level.
A second problem is that intelligence and policy in Canada often exist in two solitudes. Intelligence literacy among policymakers is low, while policy literacy in the intelligence world is similarly limited. This damages their ability to work together, with policymakers often unsure of what they are being presented with, and intelligence officials struggling to build their products in a way that maximizes their chances of being not only read and understood, but also used.
What is also needed are more exchanges and secondments between the intelligence and policy worlds to break down language and cultural barriers that have encouraged the consolidation of silos and have entrenched an insular mentality. Moreover, the intelligence community needs to enhance its professionalization, for example by providing better training and development to its analysts around how to write and speak to policy audiences, and being more sensitive to political priorities while maintaining independence. In addition, widespread human resources problems in the community – such as massive backlogs in the security clearance process – should be addressed.
Finally, the perennial difficulty in accessing highly classified intelligence products remains a serious problem that needs to be fixed. Providing ministers with more top-secret intelligence terminals in their offices would only represent a very limited Band-Aid to much deeper problems. More serious solutions need to include efforts to defeat the widespread epidemic of overclassification in the government – that is, the tendency to write using only extremely sensitive, top-secret levels of classification, as opposed to lower, more accessible levels – which acts as a major obstacle to the usability of intelligence products. The intelligence community still favours the hoarding of information, while analysts still too often believe that lower-classified products are somehow less valuable. Yet most of the time, an intelligence product that loses a few highly classified details will be easier to disseminate, and therefore will make larger gains in usability.
The past 15 years have brought important improvements in the intelligence community’s ability to serve its policy and political clients. In many cases, reform has come in the aftermath of the emergence of new threats, such as economic espionage or the pandemic, which jolted the system into action. The community today faces such a window of opportunity, and hopefully, it will consult widely and overcome its inherent resistance to change.