Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Covert collection: Whose priorities?

The NSA document that was the subject of Monday's CBC news report stated, among other points, that CSEC "has opened covert sites at the request of NSA" (Greg Weston, Glenn Greenwald & Ryan Gallagher, "Snowden document shows Canada set up spy posts for NSA," CBC News, 9 December 2013; redacted document available here).

Our embassy in Beijing may well be an example of such a site.

In itself, this news should not be very surprising. It is axiomatic within the Canadian intelligence community that Canada receives far more intelligence through the UKUSA alliance than it provides to those allies, so, other things being equal, when an opportunity arises to prove useful to those countries, especially the U.S., the Canadian government is likely to leap at the chance. ("Other things" aren't always equal, of course: the proposed operation may place wider Canadian interests or Canadian personnel at risk, or it may support U.S. policy priorities at odds with those of Canada. The CBC report mentions some of these risks.)

But Canadian officials have been adamant in their public testimony that Canada only collects intelligence corresponding to Canada's national intelligence priorities. We do not collect stuff for allies simply because that's the kind of thing they want.

Consider, for example, this exchange between CSEC Chief Keith Coulter and Senator Serge Joyal in 2005 (Proceedings of the Special Senate Committee on the Anti-terrorism Act, 11 April 2005):
Senator Joyal: Suppose you receive a request from one of those other four countries that does not meet the test of one of those essential elements of foreign affairs? What is the procedure then? How do you deal with it? Do you simply refuse it, do you have to seek authorization or can you, under the agreement, move ahead because it was requested by one of your partners and you are bound by it?

Mr. Coulter: Two things: One is with respect to our allies asking us to do something. I cannot do it if it is not consistent with Government of Canada priorities. On a reciprocal basis, we have that kind of relationship where they can ask us for something in our priorities and we can ask them for something in our priorities, and if it is consistent with theirs, they will do it. We get a lot more from this partnership than we ever give and that is a large aspect of being effective these days, partnering with others. We only do what is consistent with our priorities. ...

Senator Joyal: You have said if it meets the essential priorities, the answer would be yes, you would look into it. If it does not, has it happened that you went to get that authorization from cabinet or from your minister?

Mr. Coulter: No, we would not get to it. This is done by allies on a best efforts basis and without making a big deal out of it. We would not be able to fulfill a request because our legislation says we have to follow Government of Canada priorities.
Or this exchange between the subsequent CSEC Chief, John Adams, and Senator Colin Kenny in 2007 (Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, 30 April 2007):
Mr. Adams: In relative terms, we are small, obviously, compared to the National Security Agency of the United States. We are relatively small even in comparison to Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, in Great Britain. We would generally gain more than we give. There are some areas where we are more active than they are, and that is the game based on our national priorities. There are some areas in the world where we are present and other people are not. Obviously, in that case, we would be an exporter of information, if that information was needed elsewhere.

In total, that is basically it, senator.

The Chairman: Do protocols exist where you have divided up the spectrum, as it were?

Mr. Adams: No, they do not, senator. It is based purely on our priorities as defined by the government.

The Chairman: Allied countries do not get together and say, "You seem to be doing fairly well in this area, but we have a bit of a gap over here; any chance of you moving into it?"

Mr. Adams: No, we do not. If it is important to Canada, we will be there, if we can get there, obviously.

In discussions, as I said earlier, knowing the priorities that we have, we would share if there are mutual priorities and mutual national interests.
Similarly, in a CBC story yesterday (Greg Weston, "Canada’s electronic spy agency says tracking allies is necessary," CBC News, 10 December 2013), CSEC is reported to have stated that "its activities respond only to the priorities of the Canadian government, 'many of which are common to our allies.'"

Now, maybe there is no contradiction between these various CSEC statements and what's said in the NSA document.

It may be that on each of the evidently multiple occasions when NSA has asked CSEC to open a new covert site and received a positive reply, CSEC discovered that the location in question already fit within Canada's intelligence collection priorities.

But I doubt that's the way it went down.

More likely the NSA made its request and the Canadian government then made an assessment of the risks and opportunities posed by the proposal before deciding whether or not to give it the go ahead. And the argument that doing this favour for the NSA would help to reaffirm for the U.S. the value of Canada's participation in the UKUSA alliance would undoubtedly have been highly prominent in any such assessment. Far more prominent, I suspect, than the question of how much interest Canada had in the specific material that might be collected.

Many people would probably consider a favourable decision under such circumstances to be entirely justifiable.

But this is not the process that CSEC just described to the CBC, and it's not the process that our CSEC chiefs spelled out in their testimony before the Senate.

Which brings me back to a question I seem to ask a lot around here: Are these people incapable of speaking the simple truth?

Always with the asterisks.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home