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The Planalto Palace in Brasilia.UESLEI MARCELINO/Reuters

The apparent Canadian surveillance of a Brazilian government department is not what most Canadian citizens would expect their intelligence agencies to be doing. John Forster, the chief of Communications Security Establishment Canada, can presumably be taken at his word, when he said last week that "everything that CSEC does in terms of foreign intelligence follows Canadian law."

But the very words "foreign intelligence" are far from self-explanatory. There is a definition in the part of the National Defence Act that governs CSEC: " 'foreign intelligence' means information or intelligence about the capabilities, intentions or activities of a foreign individual, state, organization or terrorist group, as they relate to international affairs, defence or security."

Defence and security make sense in this context; "international affairs," however, is very broad; it could cover the activities of the most innocent non-Canadian NGO and the most humdrum, law-abiding, non-Canadian business that operates in more than one country.

The word "intelligence" itself may seem crystal-clear to many of the people who are in the midst of the so-called intelligence world, but it is really quite fuzzy. It is not defined in CSEC's governing statute. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, sense 2a, gives us "the collection of information, esp. of military or political value."

That comes quite close to a common-sense understanding, though it does not capture much of the clandestine, sometimes morally ambivalent quality communicated in spy novels for a century or so – sometimes glamorous, sometimes depressive, sometimes both.

More to the point, it does not convey the secretive character of "intelligence" activities, amply demonstrated last week by Canadian officials in their replies to questions about the Brazilian embarrassment.

The Canadian public, it is fair to say, thinks of intelligence as something concerned with threats to this country. The Brazilian controversy invites an inference that CSEC has been involved in simply advancing Canadian and American business interests. As a rule, business people don't need government spies.