Christian Leuprecht is a professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University, senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute, and author of Intelligence as Democratic Statecraft.
Security intelligence is meant to ascertain the identity, capabilities and intentions of adversarial actors. The whistle-blower on election interference who has been leaking intelligence assessments to The Globe and Mail is putting everything on the line: the person risks jail time, the revelations could well bring down the government (which would be a form of interference in itself, if the intent were partisan), and the actions could be injurious to the country’s reputation.
Yet, the government’s sympathizers have been quick to the draw: it is a single anonymous source; the person is disgruntled; it’s a handful of documents with a narrow range of topics; the accounts are parochial; this is racist stereotyping of Chinese-Canadians; it had no impact on the election outcome; etc.
That the government obfuscates, minimizes and deflects issues that don’t suit its agenda is par for the course. It is the prerogative of democratically elected governments to exercise discretion on whether and how to act. Countries contend with run-of-the-mill espionage and democracies have an imperative to contain intelligence excesses to counter it. But the extent to which the government is going out of its way not to act on systemic interference, subversion and subterfuge by a hostile authoritarian state actor intent on undermining the very democratic values that the government purports to champion is rather unusual for any democracy, let alone for a Five Eyes ally.
Initially in these type of incidents, the whistle-blower is thought to be far more dangerous than those who created the alleged mess in the first place. Yet, reporting of national-security whistle-blowers by independent media – routinely vilified by the government of the day – eventually turns out to have been correct. In the aftermath of apparent deficiencies, commissions of inquiry have been the instrument of choice for transparency to effect change.
In 1975, alleged misconduct in CIA domestic spying operations and the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation led Congress to establish the Church and Pike committees to investigate. In 1986, the Reagan administration secretly transferred funds to Nicaragua’s Contras, using money raised through secret sales of military equipment to Iran. News got out and a commission was appointed to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. had a commission inquire into systemic intelligence failings. Britain’s 2016 Chilcot investigation examined the role of agencies in preparing the intelligence dossier that justified the threat posed by Iraq.
Australia in particular has a track record of regular, periodic commissions and inquiries as a proven intermediary to shed light on opaque matters of national security and intelligence. The Royal Commission on Espionage (1954–55) examined an extensive espionage operation the Soviet Embassy had been running for the better part of a decade. In 1973, the country’s attorney general had the Commonwealth Police Force raid the Australian Security Intelligence Organization’s offices and question staff. The ensuing firestorm precipitated the first Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security (RCIS), chaired by Justice Robert Hope. A second Hope RCIS (1983-1984) followed.
In 2003, an Australian intelligence officer in charge of bugging the boardroom of the president of East Timor blew the whistle on Australia gaining an advantage in negotiating a treaty for oil and gas exploration. A year later, an inquiry chaired by Philip Flood presented wide-ranging recommendations to improve the accountability and management of Australia’s intelligence community. In 2011, former senior public servants Robert Cornall and Rufus Black were tasked with conducting the Independent Review of the Intelligence Community. In 2017, the Independent Intelligence Review examined co-ordination across Australia’s intelligence community, and in 2019 the government commissioned Dennis Richardson to review of the National Intelligence Community’s legislative framework.
By contrast, Canada’s last commission dates back to 1981: Wrongdoing by the RCMP’s Security Service in countering Quebec separatists during the 1970s precipitated the McDonald Commission and subsequent creation of CSIS. That standalone security intelligence service’s assessments are the source of current controversy.
Subversion without end, or an end to subversion? The stakes could not be higher. Canada’s political class has shown itself immature on national security. Public scrutiny and debate of Canada’s intelligence culture is long overdue.