There have been months of intelligence document leaks suggesting that Chinese spies are meddling in Canada.
Most Canadians have no idea where the country’s spy agency is located, nor do they know much about its daily operations. This is not because the Canadian Security Intelligence Service operates in a particularly clandestine fashion, it’s because most Canadians don’t care.
The CSIS, a civilian-run organisation based in a triangular structure of concrete and glass on the outskirts of Ottawa, lacks the intrigue of Britain’s MI5 and the notoriety of America’s Central Intelligence Agency.
“I look nothing like Daniel Craig, and I did not arrive here in an Aston Martin. I’m just as disappointed as you are – on both fronts,” its director, David Vigneault, said in a speech in 2018, poking fun at the service’s largely uncharismatic reputation. “Most of you remember the movie Fight Club. And you will know 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.”
But the operations of CSIS have become headline news after months of leaks of intelligence documents that suggest China has a sophisticated election interference network across Canada.
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The allegations of Beijing’s meddling attempts have caused political turmoil and ruined at least two political careers. They have also put an uncomfortable spotlight on an organisation already grappling with allegations of a toxic work environment and deep internal rifts over its future.
When Vigneault appeared before parliament in early March, he lamented that the leaks were “very serious” and revealed the agency’s investigative methods and possibly its sources. Despite his frustration, the leaks have persisted.
In the months since intelligence documents were first shared with two Canadian media outlets, it remains unclear if the leaks are coming from within the agency or from disgruntled bureaucrats in the federal government who have access to CSIS documents.
The publicity-shy agency has remained largely silent as the political crisis has deepened.
“CSIS probably just really hopes this goes away as quickly as humanly possible. This is very, very bad for them,” said Jessica Davis, a former intelligence analyst at CSIS and the president of Insight Threat Intelligence, a consultancy. “They’re probably concerned about not adding fuel to the fire by saying something the leaker feels compelled to contradict with more information, more documents and more allegations.”
Created in 1984 in the wake of failures within Canada’s federal police agency, including allegations of illegal conduct, CSIS monitors threats to Canada’s national security, operating inside the country and abroad. It cannot detain or arrest people, and its intelligence cannot be used in prosecutions. It also diverges from allied nations’ agencies in how restrained it is when it comes to handling sensitive information.
“The joke about American intelligence is if you want to know what they’re thinking, just wait three days and you’ll see it in the New York Times. And British intelligence has long used leaking strategically. But in Canada, leaks are incredibly rare,” said Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University and a former national security analyst. “We have never dealt with a situation like this.”
The muted role of the agency in political culture, and the reality that intelligence has not typically influenced Canada’s foreign or national security policies, means little has trickled down into the public consciousness.
This lack of interest, however, has masked the lawsuits and legal condemnations of the agency. In 2017, CSIS was at the centre of a C$35m lawsuit, which it later settled, after it was accused of racism, homophobia and anti-Muslim discrimination. In a separate case, a staff member alleged bullying, discrimination, abuse and religious persecution, and his lawyer argued that CSIS was “broken”.
Chinese spy agencies deceived the world by popularising ‘Grains of Sand,” and many Chinese analysts are now debunking this theory.
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