A unit within the department of Global Affairs that collects intelligence on security in countries such as China needs the same legislative oversight as Canada’s other national security agencies, intelligence experts say.
One former senior CSIS official described the Global Security Reporting Program, created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to field a special class of Canadian foreign service officers who were tasked with reporting back to Ottawa on security matters, as a “very amateurish way of foreign affairs trying to create a mini-spy agency within the department.”
Phil Gurski, a former senior strategic analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said GSRP diplomats have put the lives of people at risk in dangerous parts of the world.
“I do know for a fact that in other posts that I won’t name, GSRP officers did some things that put some people in danger,” he said. “That speaks volumes about the credibility of the program and the fact that they don’t really know what they are doing.”
The Globe and Mail reported Saturday that Canadian Michael Spavor alleges China arrested and imprisoned him and Michael Kovrig, a diplomat who worked for GSRP, because he unwittingly provided information on North Korea to Mr. Kovrig that was shared with CSIS and Five Eyes intelligence partners.
Andy Ellis, former director of operations at CSIS, said the intelligence community has long had concerns about the program at the heart of the allegations levelled at Ottawa by Mr. Spavor.
Mr. Ellis told The Globe that GSRP lacks sufficient legislative controls and has grown into an information-collection program for which its staff are not sufficiently trained.
“The GSRP has been of concern to professional people in Canada. We were concerned about the legal mandate under which they work,” he said. “I fear it evolved into people who neither had the training or the experience to be collecting more confidential and protected information and doing so in a manner that appeared to be clandestine.”
Both Mr. Gurski and Mr. Ellis said they had no direct knowledge and would not comment on allegations made in The Globe about a legal dispute involving Mr. Spavor against the federal government and Mr. Kovrig.
In a statement Sunday, China’s embassy in Ottawa said the two Canadians were “suspected of committing crimes endangering China’s national security” and their case was handled by the Chinese judicial system “in accordance with the law.”
“Recent relevant reports once again prove that the above facts cannot be denied,” the embassy said. “Canada’s hyping up of so-called ‘arbitrary detention’ by Chinais purely a thief crying ‘stop thief’ and fully exposes Canada’s hypocrisy.”
Mr. Ellis said the GSRP program should be governed by legislation and reviewed as are CSIS and the Communications Security Establishment, which handles signal intelligence and cybersecurity.
“Any organization that is involved in collection of intelligence should have a foundation in legislation and should have a review by relevant agencies of government to assure their behaviour is consistent with Canadian foreign policy and Canadian law,” he said.
Mr. Gurski said “anybody who is going to act outside the country in dangerous situations and possibly put peoples’ lives at risk definitely has to have oversight.”
Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and associate professor of international relations at Carleton University, said the rules that set out what GSRP can and cannot do are “extremely vague.”
“They’re accountable to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. But beyond this, we really don’t know what their policies and procedures are. Out of all of the foreign defence and national security agencies we have, GSRP is arguably one of the least transparent.”
Canada’s National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, which is supposed to act as a watchdog, completed a review of GSRP. But nearly three years after it was published, it has still not been released.
“Three years? That’s not transparency,” Prof. Carvin said.
The Globe asked NSIRA for a copy of the report, which was finished in 2020, but its media relations unit said in an e-mail that the study is still in “redaction phase,” meaning it’s being examined for what should be censored from public view.
Canada has never created a foreign human-intelligence collecting agency like the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States or MI6 in Britain. And both GSRP and the Department of National Defence’s intelligence unit have arisen to fill a need for information abroad.
Global Affairs has long said GSRP is not intelligence gathering because it’s conducted openly and its sources are not paid.
Artur Wilczynski was the director-general, security and intelligence, at Global Affairs between 2010 and 2014, then called Foreign Affairs, and responsible for the GSRP program. Now retired, he said Monday he could not recall during his four years having been briefed on any incidents where GSRP officers or their sources had ever found themselves in danger as a result of this program’s work. “I seriously do not recall anything ever raising to that threshold.”
He defended GSRP as a vital source of information on security abroad. “We were always very clear, both domestically and internationally, that this was a group of diplomats who had a mandate to look at broad security questions that were of interest to Canada,” Mr. Wilczynski said. “It is not covert, it is not clandestine. It is, quite frankly, simply meeting with contacts as any regular diplomat does.”
He said it was useful because Canadian diplomats were otherwise overwhelmed with myriad responsibilities. “It provided a focused attention within key embassies around the world on security questions – when too often those issues were not front and centre for too many of my former colleagues who were heads of mission who were ambassadors or high commissioners.”
Mr. Wilczynski said states have the option of expelling foreign diplomats who they believe are exceeding their mandates. When he became director-general, he recalled, Canada still had an embassy in Tehran. “We had folks in all kinds of complex places,” he recalled. “If there was a perception that Canadian diplomats were acting inappropriately, they would have been PNGed,” he said, using an acronym for persona-non-grata, or expulsion. “And they were not.”
He said GSRP work is greatly appreciated by other departments and agencies as well as allies in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance.
Alan Treddenick, a former CSIS station chief in Saudi Arabia, said what allegedly happened to Mr. Spavor reinforces the view held by many in the intelligence community that GSRP’s work should be handled by intelligence professionals.
“These revelations demonstrate why Canada requires a separate foreign intelligence service. Staffed with professional intelligence officers, with proper training and support structures,” he said.
Prof. Carvin argues that our understanding of what constitutes intelligence is changing, as evidenced in the Russia-Ukraine war and Israel’s war on Hamas.
“There’s a reason we talk about open-source intelligence and, if you’re gathering information from humans, most governments in the world are going to see this as intelligence collection,” Prof. Carvin said.
She emphasized that nothing she is saying excuses the Chinese government’s detention of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.
“It’s naïve for Global Affairs Canada to engage in this kind of information collection while insisting it’s not intelligence collection; when in reality, much of these activities are extremely similar to intelligence services,” she said.
“I just think that Global Affairs is kind of clinging to a very Cold War notion of what intelligence gathering is when the rest of the world has a much wider view,” she said.
Prof. Carvin says she is concerned that Global Affairs is “potentially putting its own officers, and the people they talk to, in danger.”
Intelligence agency budgets were rising after 9/11 and the argument at Global Affairs, then called Foreign Affairs, was the department needed to get “its elbows into the game,” according to a 2021 book, by University of Ottawa professor Thomas Juneau and Carleton University’s Prof. Carvin.
Diplomatic reporting has always been a staple of foreign postings, but for GSRP officers it is their full-time job. They are relieved of the administrative work, the consular and visa responsibilities, the trade and cultural promotion that consume their colleagues’ time.
There was a shortage of this kind of reporting after 9/11, Prof. Juneau and Prof. Carvin write, because Global Affairs felt their diplomats spent too much time on administrative tasks and not enough collecting unfiltered information. “There was a pressing need,” their book says, citing an unnamed source, “to get out of the cocktail circuit conventional wisdom and go talk to the port operator.”
The authors write of how one unnamed GSRP officer in Damascus, before the Canadian embassy in Syria was closed in 2012, “spoke to Hezbollah members in Lebanon on a regular basis.”