Stephanie Carvin is an assistant professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, and a former national security analyst with the federal government
In a week dominated by headlines alleging the FBI meddling in the U.S. presidential election, and police surveillance of journalists in Quebec, Thursday's Federal Court ruling on CSIS's Operational Data Analysis Centre (ODAC) likely heightened the uncertainty many Canadians feel over the actions of our national security services.
While much of the ruling refers to data collection and retention, it also speaks to the role of intelligence analysis within the government of Canada – a topic that has thus far not received much attention in discussions surrounding the national security review process, but should.
As both the ruling and the CSIS director Michel Coulombe noted on Thursday, part of the issue surrounds the CSIS Act – a product of the early 1980s. Both the Federal Court and Coulombe noted that technology has moved on since this time. However, the issue goes further than this, especially when it comes to intelligence analysis.
Although the Macdonald Commission desired to create a civilian intelligence agency, the character of CSIS continues to reflect the organization from which it was born – the 1970s RCMP. While the focus in the Act is rightly on stopping the "bad guys," other intelligence functions of national security organizations, especially analysis, are secondary considerations.
Indeed, other than noting in Section 12(1) that the Service "shall report to and advise the Government of Canada" on national security threats, the role of intelligence analysis is barely given any consideration. There is no guidance as to how this role should be done, how intelligence should support operations or in what way advice is to be given.
Moreover, there is no formal or consistent intelligence analysis oversight – or more correctly, efficacy review. One can only speculate that had there been some form of regular review of CSIS's analytical functions, it is unlikely that ODAC's existence and activities would have been such a surprise to the Federal Court.
But this situation has led to other problems as well. For example, there is no accountability within the CSIS Executive as to the delivery of intelligence products, how those products are produced or whether those products are delivered in a timely manner.
Additionally, there is no way of knowing how intelligence products are used or if they adequately support internal operations or policy making. Furthermore, there is no way of knowing if analysts have the proper tools and training.
In fact, it is not even clear what kind of analysis CSIS should be producing. ODAC's role appears to be that of supporting operations, but there is no reason that the broader trends it uncovers cannot be used to support intelligence analysis that supports policy making.
But complicating matters is the largely haphazard structure of the Canadian intelligence community's (IC) analytical branches. There is considerable overlap between several, including the Privy Council Office's Intelligence Assessment Secretariat, the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC), and CSIS's analytical branches.
While having competing perspectives can provide a plurality of views for the government to choose, the lack of review means that we do not know how well the IC manages these relationships and/or collaborates. As such, the government should take two steps as it undergoes its national security review.
First, it should support CSIS's development of innovative intelligence analysis techniques, such as data analytics. In an era of budgetary constraints and rapidly evolving threats, such techniques can help provide direction and focus of scarce resources. Even in noting its concern with ODAC's analytical activities, the Federal Court saw their value in supporting the Service's work.
This change, however, will be difficult. CSIS is an organization led by intelligence officers, many of whom are more comfortable "knocking on doors" than statistically driven trends. Although some might speculate that CSIS is anxious to jump on the "big data" wagon, this change will come as a culture shock to a largely traditional organization still governed by its Cold War mandate.
This brings us to the second step – analytical modernization must be done with appropriate oversight and efficacy review. This, as well as ensuring the quality and timeliness of analysis, should be key functions of the Parliamentary committee that the Liberal government is creating.
On Thursday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale stated that he was taking seriously the concerns about CSIS's bulk data collection activities. He must also take the time to consider what CSIS's analytical role should be and ensure there is appropriate oversight and review of its activities.
After all, there are many excellent analysts in the government. Review will ensure their work helps Canada to be a safer place.