Canada’s Fight Club? Spies Face Public Inquiry Into Spy Secrets

Canada faces a conundrum as it investigates possible election interference by China, Russia, and others. How does a public inquiry handle top-secret intelligence?

Early on, Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue’s team asked for 13 documents held by Canada’s federal spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. CSIS took 200 person-hours to review and redact the intelligence - roughly 15 hours per document. Some of the records were almost entirely stripped of information by the end of the process. CSIS Director David Vigneault appeared before the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in early 2024 to explain that the purpose of the federal spy agency is to have secrets: “These documents, their entire essence, was to be full of secrets and classified information.”

While CSIS intends to cooperate with the commission, it is not clear how. The issue isn't black and white.

“We are learning that countering foreign influence operations, including election interference, is very different from countering espionage in the classic sense: the attempt to steal secrets,” says Alex Finley, a former CIA officer-turned-author who runs a course in Foreign Influence Operations. “Countering influence operations does require a certain amount of transparency and sharing with the public what our adversaries are up to because the public is the target of the operation. Transparency can help neutralize the op."

To further complicate matters, Canada is a member of the Five Eyes alliance - a clandestine club that gives CSIS access to secrets from the US, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand - so there are international relations to consider as well as Canada's diplomatic relationship with China, who 'strongly deplores' the inquiry.

“In the case of Five Eyes, of course, this is difficult, because intelligence originates with different countries, all of whom want to protect their sources and methods, and some of whom might face different geopolitical calculations. It is a hard balance to strike,” adds Alex Finley, who is also a SPYEX consultant.

The problem has sparked international debate about the Canadian public’s right to know if their elections are being compromised vs. CSIS's need for secrecy. The national Globe and Mail newspaper published an editorial headlined: The Truth Should Not Be [Redacted]. The BBC questioned why Canada is so vulnerable to foreign interference. Others wondered if Canada's spy agency is 'over-classifying' intelligence. Three former Canadian spy chiefs also weighed in, encouraging the Inquiry to challenge government censorship.

Canada's Parliament in Ottawa

Canada’s Fight Club? Spies Face Public Inquiry Into Spy Secrets

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Caroline Byrne
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Canada faces a conundrum as it investigates possible election interference by China, Russia, and others. How does a public inquiry handle top-secret intelligence?

Early on, Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue’s team asked for 13 documents held by Canada’s federal spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. CSIS took 200 person-hours to review and redact the intelligence - roughly 15 hours per document. Some of the records were almost entirely stripped of information by the end of the process. CSIS Director David Vigneault appeared before the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in early 2024 to explain that the purpose of the federal spy agency is to have secrets: “These documents, their entire essence, was to be full of secrets and classified information.”

While CSIS intends to cooperate with the commission, it is not clear how. The issue isn't black and white.

“We are learning that countering foreign influence operations, including election interference, is very different from countering espionage in the classic sense: the attempt to steal secrets,” says Alex Finley, a former CIA officer-turned-author who runs a course in Foreign Influence Operations. “Countering influence operations does require a certain amount of transparency and sharing with the public what our adversaries are up to because the public is the target of the operation. Transparency can help neutralize the op."

To further complicate matters, Canada is a member of the Five Eyes alliance - a clandestine club that gives CSIS access to secrets from the US, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand - so there are international relations to consider as well as Canada's diplomatic relationship with China, who 'strongly deplores' the inquiry.

“In the case of Five Eyes, of course, this is difficult, because intelligence originates with different countries, all of whom want to protect their sources and methods, and some of whom might face different geopolitical calculations. It is a hard balance to strike,” adds Alex Finley, who is also a SPYEX consultant.

The problem has sparked international debate about the Canadian public’s right to know if their elections are being compromised vs. CSIS's need for secrecy. The national Globe and Mail newspaper published an editorial headlined: The Truth Should Not Be [Redacted]. The BBC questioned why Canada is so vulnerable to foreign interference. Others wondered if Canada's spy agency is 'over-classifying' intelligence. Three former Canadian spy chiefs also weighed in, encouraging the Inquiry to challenge government censorship.

Canada's Parliament in Ottawa
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Canada’s Public Inquiry Into Secrets

Canada's Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference was triggered by media reports alleging China meddled in Canada’s federal elections in 2019 and 2021, but the allegations themselves are based on unidentified security sources and classified documents. PM Justin Trudeau’s government initially resisted holding a public inquiry. David Johnston, a former governor general and family friend, then led an investigation but stepped down after accusations of bias.

Canada is now trying to come up with a solution that will satisfy most - if not all - concerns. A special CSIS intelligence team is reviewing what they can share, even if most of it is redacted. The Canadian government has convened its own special committee who hold top-secret security clearances but members have reportedly complained they have only restricted access to pertinent Cabinet documents. Meanwhile, federal government lawyers suggest the inquiry hold closed-door hearings followed by the release of a public summary, or possibly release a limited number of documents to the public with redactions. The inquiry resumes in March and expect to finalize a report by the end of 2024.

Canadian spymaster David Vigneault must be longing for the old days in the shadows. Vigneault has previously noted that the first rule of Fight Club is ‘Don’t talk about Fight Club’: "Well, the first rule of CSIS has always been ‘Don’t talk’. Period.”

Nonetheless, the CSIS director addressed a Public Order Emergency Commission in 2022 that looked into the ‘Freedom Convoy’ truckers’ protests that paralyzed Ottawa streets around Parliament Hill. Vigneault spent the first half of 2023 fielding questions about CSIS’s response to election interference and the last half being asked if Canadian security services could have stopped the death of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, whom India is accused of killing in British Columbia.

In an interview with CBC, Vigneault said the agency is "being challenged" and that CSIS's performance is "handcuffed" by the Canadian Security Intelligence Act, written in 1984 and drafted "when the fax machine was cutting-edge technology". As a result, CSIS must secure a warrant from a judge to learn who is behind an online account, which is time consuming. "Back in the day, if you had a phone number, we could use the phone book and see what was the name associated with that phone number."

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