After almost 18 months of indecision, the Conservative government has apparently decided to expand the mandate of Canada's existing spy service rather than create a separate foreign intelligence agency. Good. When resources are scarce and threats are immediate, Ottawa should not be in the business of assembling another agency from scratch. It should expand its existing agency.
There are already too many narrowly focused intelligence silos struggling to operate in a world where terrorists collude across international boundaries, unrestricted by operational mandates. As Jim Judd, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told the Senate's national security committee last week, "Putting both functions in one agency would allow one to better build on the existing methodology, strengths, technologies, expertise that already exists in one agency." No need for duplication.
The Conservatives quietly hatched the idea for two separate spy agencies during the federal election campaign of early 2006. The need, they said, was to allow the government to "independently counter threats before they reach Canada" with a foreign intelligence agency similar to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. But CSIS already conducts covert operations abroad where there is a direct threat to Canada's security. In recent years, agents have operated in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. The possibility of two spy agencies brushing up against each other on foreign ground - one collecting foreign intelligence while the other looks for national security intelligence outside Canada - is a recipe for trouble.
That logic apparently got through. Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day has acknowledged the start-up costs of a new agency could be huge and it might take several years to set the thing up. But CSIS has resource problems. Personnel are stretched. Still scrambling to recover from the downsizing of the mid-1990s, the service must now cope with the retirement of the baby boomers. Meanwhile, its chores keep multiplying; it must perform security checks on all refugees, including intensive examinations of the increasing number of claimants from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although CSIS analysts can scrounge enormous amounts of information from open sources, including about 5,000 websites that are terrorist-related, it is difficult to obtain information about specific individuals. This is where agents in the field can help. To expand its mandate, CSIS would have to increase its training in foreign languages and communications technology, but the basis is already there.
There are different international models for handling foreign and domestic intelligence. For decades, the United States, Britain and Australia have separated domestic security, foreign intelligence and signals collection. But that model has huge flaws; the U.S. domestic and foreign agencies did not share data that could have thwarted the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Aware of the dangers, the most recent Western jurisdictions to set up intelligence agencies, New Zealand and the Netherlands, have opted for merged foreign and domestic models. Meanwhile, because of the fear of another terrorist incident, competing agencies within the U.S. are working more closely together, as are agencies within Britain, despite their different cultures and mandates.
Canada has not had a good experience with new intelligence agencies. It created CSIS in 1984, carving it out of the RCMP to fix problems identified by the McDonald commission into RCMP wrongdoing. The result was new problems; the silo-building, the jealous hoarding of data, arguably allowed the two agencies to miss Canada's worst terrorist incident, the Air India explosion of 1985. Those silos still exist. The addition of another agency, whatever the clarity of its operational mandate, would likely mean less shared information.
Mr. Day is right to expand Canada's foreign intelligence capabilities. But Ottawa should stick with the agency that is already in the field.