Former CSIS Director admits intelligence agencies are 'overprotective'

Foreign Interference Commission Inquiry Day 3: Public hearing remarks that Canada’s intel agencies are far less transparent than U.S., U.K. and Australian counterparts.

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Canada's intelligence and surveillance agencies have a culture leaning towards excessive classification of information and "overprotection", former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Director Richard Fadden said during the third day of the first phase of the Foreign Interference Commission's (FIC) public hearings on Wednesday, in Ottawa, ON.

The federal government claims the FIC will examine "interference" from foreign states and non-state actors – primarily China and Russia – in Canada's 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

The commission was launched following allegations within the political and media classes that certain Canadian politicians – including MP Han Dong (formerly with the Liberal Party and now "independent") and Deputy Mayor of Markham Han Dong – benefit from Chinese Communist Party (CCP) machinations in Canada. 

Fadden's remarks about the Canadian intelligence and surveillance apparatus' over-classification of information were made in the context of expectations that the FIC will be dealing with governmentally classified information in its inquiry of foreign interference in Canada's politics.

"If you have a number of institutions that have contributed to a particular piece of intelligence, almost always the default is to classify to the highest level sought by any given institution," Fadden said. "It's very rarely that you end up with the lowest common denominator or the lowest common classification."

Fadden noted that excessive secrecy can benefit ministers and senior officials by reducing public scrutiny of conduct kept hidden. He spoke of how an "overprotective" operational culture reduces "controversy":

"I think, over time, the protective culture becomes dominant, and this actually sits well with ministers and central agencies, and senior officials, especially when the protective effect -- the practical effect -- is reducing the likelihood of controversy.

I'm not suggesting that controversy or partisanship very often plays a role, but, if by happenstance, your invoking protection under a particular legal provision means that you're not releasing something that would cause all sorts of controversy, there's nobody in the system that points in the opposite direction -- and I'll come to this in a minute -- but there's no openness advocate in the entire system.|

The Five Eyes Anglosphere governments are more transparent with their populations than Canada, Fadden added. The U.S., U.K, and Australia publicly disclose more classified information than Canada.

"Our close allies are much, much more open than we are. They really protect their core secrets, but the Brits, the Yanks, the Australians tend to be much more open than Canada is. You can often point to something that they've released that's very close to what you want to release and ask the officials, 'Why can't we do this?'," he said.

Alan Jones, who previously held senior positions in CSIS, shared some methods used by the CCP to influence Canadian politics.

The Chinese government can use its diplomats and consulates, trade representatives, state-controlled media and ostensible tourist groups as vehicles for influence operations in Canada, Jones noted. The CCP can also coerce Chinese-Canadian citizens by threatening their family members in China, he added. 

Jones did not mention the Chinese government's control over social media platform TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance. He also made no mention of foreign states' information warfare waged across social media.

The first phase of the FIC's public hearings is scheduled to end on Friday.

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