Review: Top Secret Canada-Understanding the Canadian Intelligence and National Security Community

Canadian students of national security have historically suffered in ways that their British and American colleagues have not. Whereas our Anglo-cousins enjoy a robust literature that, amongst other things, maps out what parts of their governments are involved in what elements of national security, Canadians have not had similar comprehensive maps. The result has been that scholars have been left to depend on personal connections, engagements with government insiders, leaked and redacted government documents, and a raft of supposition and logical inferences. Top Secret Canada: Understanding the Canadian Intelligence and National Security Community aspires to correct some of this asymmetry and is largely successful.

The book is divided into chapters about central agencies, core collection and advisory agencies, operations and enforcement and community engagement agencies, government departments with national security functions, and the evolving national security review landscape. Chapters generally adhere to a structure that describes an agency’s mandate, inter-agency cooperation, the resources possessed and needed by the organization, the challenges facing the agency, and its controversies. This framing gives both the book, and most chapters, a sense of continuity throughout.

The editors of the volume were successful in getting current, as well as former, government bureaucrats and policymakers, as well as academics, to contribute chapters. Part One, which discusses the central agencies, were amongst the most revealing. Fyffe’s discussion of the evolution of the National Security Intelligence Advisor’s role and the roles of the various intelligence secretariats, combined with Lilly’s explanation of the fast-paced and issue-driven focus of political staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office, pulls back the curtain of how Canada’s central agencies intersect with national security and intelligence issues. As useful as these chapters are, they also lay bare the difficulty in structuring the book: whereas Fyffe’s chapter faithfully outlines the Privy Council Office per the structure outlined in the volume’s introduction, Lilly’s adopts a structure that, significantly, outlines what government bureaucrats must do to be more effective in engaging with political staff as well as how political staffers’ skills and knowledge could be used by intelligence and security agencies. This bifurcation in the authors’ respective intents creates a tension in answering ‘who is this book for?’, which carries on in some subsequent chapters. Nonetheless, I found these chapters perhaps the most insightful for the national security-related challenges faced by those closest to the Prime Minister.

Part Two describes the core collection and advisory agencies and clarifies the current responsibilities of the agencies that are involved in obtaining national security and foreign intelligence, as well as processing it for other parts of government. Littlewood’s analysis of the warrants obtained by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service provides interesting back-of-napkin math for determining that around half of the Service’s workforce is likely involved in warranted activities and, moreover, that its workforce is stretched thin. In writing about warranting issues faced by the Service (and, perhaps, implicitly speaking to the last chapter of the book written by journalist Alex Boutilier) he argues that journalists need to be very careful in how they summarize what the Service does: while the judiciary has sometimes found the Service to have contravened the law, how the Service did so must be reported accurately. Robinson’s chapter on the Communications Security Establishment makes clear how powers that were recently provided to it take the Establishment beyond its traditional roles. Specifically, the Communications Security Establishment’s activities are expanding beyond its traditional intelligence collection and communications security roles, to now also including more interventionist and active roles on the international stage.  

The chapters on the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre and Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC), like those on the central agencies, bring these government institutions somewhat out of the shadows. Carvin had the unenviable task of explaining a largely opaque institution, with the institution ultimately declining to make someone available for interview and refusing to respond to emailed questions. Her efforts to demystify the Centre may help other scholars who have sought to understand its involvement in monitoring protests or otherwise producing analytical reports. This being said, her discussion of how the Centre has often been staffed with secondees of questionable quality from other agencies may attenuate, rather than mollify, those critics’ worries about the quality or potential implications of intelligence assessments that emerge from the agency. Like others in the book, Pyrik brings a depth of expertise to bear in presenting FINTRAC. His chapter reads as someone who has, by necessity, been deeply steeped in the agency’s authorizing legislation and consequently is intimately familiar with its limitations, inclusive of FINTRAC’s ability to collect and analyze information while lacking a way to then compel other government agencies to act on those analyses. In questioning whether FINTRAC is actually vital for investigations, Pyrik almost seems to be pitching a potential review topic for Canada’s review agencies or oversight bodies to subsequently take up. 

In Part Three, we learn about the agencies responsible for undertaking operations, enforcement activities, and community engagement. Roach’s framing of core challenges before the Royal Canadian Mounted Police largely indicate that structural changes are needed if the force is to develop specializations needed to address contemporary policing issues, if it is to better deconflict issues between itself and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and if it is to overcome the perennial ‘intelligence to evidence’ problem that has plagued the Canadian national security and intelligence community for decades, if not since its inception. Leuprecht et al provide an often-charitable description of the Canadian Border Services Agency, including the reasons for why it costs so much to ‘host’ detainees in provincial jails. While the authors make clear that border control has transformed from one of administering law to enforcing law, and that this has created tensions in the Agency, readers may have benefitted from a more detailed analysis of the appropriateness of this very transformation in the first place and why so much focus was placed on arming members of the Border Services.

Wilner has a curious task of unpacking Public Safety Canada, which ostensibly includes many of the other agencies discussed in this book under its umbrella. His chapter outlines the actual coordination roles of Public Safety, how and why it interoperates with the other national security and intelligence agencies, and raises the flag that it may both be expected to do too much while remaining too small to be effective in meeting those ambitions. Kubicke’s and King’s chapter on the Canada Centre and Countering Violent Extremism showcases, first, the international context for these programs and assesses their relative (in)effectiveness before turning to explain how the Canada Centre is involved in building domestic expertise in countering violent extremism and assisting front-line practitioners and researchers in their activities. They provide a very helpful introduction to what is a very new, and very small, part of the Canadian national security and intelligence community.

Part Four turns to government departments that possess national security functions but whose mandates are much broader than just national security. Juneau’s summary of the history and structure, roles, and challenges facing the Department of National Defense and the Canadian Armed Forces complements a government report tabled in 2018, which for the first time unpacked the agency’s intelligence functions. Beyond explaining what part of the military does what, and under what authorities, this chapter very positively makes clear that gender inequity—and gendered harassment and abuse in the worse of cases—threatens the intelligence capabilities for the Forces. Notwithstanding other authors who discretely recognized issues linked with gender-based harassment, Juneau’s chapter is the only one that takes up gender in such a forceful way; this was a very helpful and important contribution, and appears especially prescient given ongoing controversies over how the government has failed to adequately address these issues in the military

Canada lacks a statutory foreign human intelligence collection service and, as such, has historically relied on the Department of External Affairs (now Global Affairs Canada) to collect a breadth of foreign information and intelligence, though these activities are of somewhat diminished importance as other government agencies ramp up cooperation with their own international counterparts. Nesbitt does his best to help us understand how the department’s internal, and routinely transforming, bureaus operate, and rightly critiques the department for failing to follow through on promised initiatives, such as a cohesive digital foreign policy strategy. Reading Nesbitt’s description of the department leaves the reader with a sense of dread; while almost every chapter in this volume lays bare significant organizational and human resources difficulties, those in Global Affairs Canada in some ways seem the most dire and most antiquated. 

Forcese and Poirier walk through how the ‘government’s lawyers’ (i.e., Justice Canada) are involved in national security cases, with an almost stern discussion of the professionalism requirements placed on all Justice lawyers involved in national security. Forcese, in particular, raises serious concerns about how Justice lawyers develop opinions about the law and its contours in the national security space. He worries that the current processes run the risk of creating a kind of secret law that could—charitably—produce “outcomes that those outside of government may find difficult to understand” (246). I agree with his assessments and concerns wholeheartedly.

If Parts One to Four of the edited volume leave a reader concerned about the pressures, expansive mandates, and challenges of government departments, Part Five leaves the reader with a sense that the formal and informal oversight and review bodies may not necessarily identify, mitigate, or pressure agencies to correct the aforementioned difficulties. West conducts a survey of the formal review and oversight bodies in Canada, all of which are relatively new compared to the agencies that they are tasked with assessing. Her conclusion that only time will tell whether the agencies can actually fulfil their expansive, and important, roles is an appropriate warning. However, placing her warning in the context of the other chapters that routinely emphasize serious difficulties in hiring and retaining qualified staff give a sense that these oversight and review agencies may be facing either Herculean or Sisyphean challenges, depending on a reader’s level of optimism or pessimism.

The final chapter of the book is written by a journalist, and it discusses one of the informal modes accountability to which Canada’s intelligence and national security community are subject (others include from civil society and critics in academia). Boutilier makes clear that there are relatively few of his kind with expertise in national security, and that these few national security journalists find Canada’s agencies and departments to be more secretive than their international equivalents, and certainly amongst the most secretive and difficult to report on in Canada. Members of the Canadian national security and intelligence community seem to prefer to appear on A Podcast Called INTREPID, which is likely seen as friendlier venue than the national media, with the consequence that journalists often rely on those who will speak to them: academics, civil liberties groups, and others who are knowledgeable about, but not a part of, the Canadian national security and intelligence establishment. The consequence, for the national security and intelligence community, is that while its members may be publicly speaking amongst themselves in important and new ways, the core mass media messaging about their activities continues to be significantly framed by their more public critics.

Overall, this book succeeds in presenting the most coherent and cohesive view of the Canadian national security and intelligence community to date. Readers will leave with a sense of the actual structure and mandates of agencies, and the challenges they face into the future. As is likely clear from this review, this book’s principal contribution to the literature is in its descriptive nature: neither the editors nor authors are presenting theories of what constitutes national security, applying theories of governance or management policy, or engaging in other theory work. This shouldn’t be read as taking away from the book given that without empirical detail, any efforts at theorization can tend towards abstractions that are non-reflective of any semblance of reality.

Readers will almost certainly benefit from many chapters being written by current or former practitioners for at least two reasons. First, because the authors hold an intimate knowledge of the departments and agencies, which means that facts which are provided would otherwise almost certainly not come to public light. Second, because a reader can see the kinds of defensiveness that past (and, presumably, current) members of the agencies and departments have towards public criticisms levied against ‘their’ part of the national security and intelligence community. It’s well known that some government agencies are particularly prickly to critique from parties external to government and several of these chapters certainly capture at least an element of this attitude and, as such, give the reader a sense of the culture of Canada’s national security and intelligence community.

Ultimately, do I recommend this book? Yes, wholeheartedly. I think that it’s helpful to understand the Canadian national security and intelligence community and the editors are to be congratulated in their hard work in collecting a group of eminent experts and insiders. For students of Canadian national security, this is an essential handbook that will provide baseline empirical details about the community and give an appreciation of how the different parts of the government do (or, do not) intersect with one another. In laying out how government functions, Canadian and international scholars alike will be better suited to engage in theory building and testing, and will ultimately be well served by using Top Secret Canada as a cornerstone in their writing and teaching alike.

Top Secret Canada: Understanding the Canadian Intelligence and National Security Community, edited by Stephanie Carvin, Thomas Juneau, and Craig Forcese, is available for purchase at the University of Toronto Press or wherever you purchase your electronic or hardcopy books.