UPDATED: Canada, Huawei and the role of intelligence agencies in a modern democracy

Given the recent reversal by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the previous “middle road” position on Huawei laid down by former PM Theresa May and reiterated by Johnson as recently as January 2020, much is now being made of the fact that Canada is the “only” member of the Five Eyes intelligence network not to have formally banned Huawei from participating in its 5G networks. In fact, New Zealand has not done so either, at least not formally. Instead of a blanket ban, they assess each application on its merits and companies are free to re-apply. See: Andrew Little says New Zealand won’t follow UK’s Huwawei 5G ban (Rachel Thomas, rnz.co., 15 July 2020).

Close security relationship between CIA and Australian security agencies

So what of Australia? Its hard-right government is unequivocal in its opposition to Huawei having any role in its nascent 5G network, labeling it a “high risk vendor”. In the words of the Australian spy chief, Mike Burgess:

The stakes could not be higher. This is about more than just protecting the confidentiality of our information – it is also about integrity and availability of the data and systems on which we depend. Getting security right for our critical infrastructure is paramount.

The Australian decision is no surprise, given the extremely close working relationship of ASD, the Australian Signals Directorate, with the NSA and the CIA, including in particular the joint operation of Pine Gap, “the NSA spy hub in the heart of Australia”. The Pine Gap facility not only monitors military activities of other nations but:

provid[es] intelligence — actionable, time-sensitive intelligence — for American operations in [the] battlefield.

National security trumps press freedoms in Australia

In an earlier blog we highlighted the troubling Australian record when it comes to freedom of the press, due in large measure to its enactment of more national security laws restricting fundamental freedoms than any other western democracy. This led the New York Times journalist Damien Cave to pen an article entitled: “Australia May Well Be the World’s Most Secretive Democracy (June 2019).

It should be noted at this point that Australia does not have an explicit constitutional protection for freedom of speech as Canada does in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In other words, there is no domestic legal check on the ability of Parliament to restrict those rights and freedoms.

The title of a recent article by Australian journalist Brian Toohey brings home the full extent of the problem: Australia’s national security laws leave us on a similar path to Hong Kong (Brian Toohey, canberratimes.com, 13 July 2020). Toohey writes:

Hong Kong’s new national security laws are attracting well-deserved condemnation. It’s a pity that there hasn’t been greater recognition that Australia’s own national security laws share some common features.

These “common features” include secret trials, the national security offence of causing “intangible” damage to Australia’s international relations, including “political, military and economic” relations, and little protection for disclosures of confidential information in the public interest.

Public alarm over police raids on journalists’ offices and charges being laid against them has led to the establishment of a parliamentary “Inquiry into the impact of the exercise of law enforcement and intelligence powers on the freedom of the press”. It began on the 4th of July, 2019, has now completed the hearing phase and is continuing its deliberations.

But incredibly, even the current 80-plus laws providing sweeping police and national security powers are not enough in the eyes of the Scott Morrison government. While the parliamentary inquiry continues, they have placed new legislation before Parliament. Brian Toohey writes:

Proposed new laws before the Parliament will give 12 Australian security and intelligence organisations the power to force a wide range of digital platforms, service providers and similar firms in overseas countries to hand over personal and business data belonging to Australians.

These new laws will be facilitated by reciprocal agreements with the US and the UK, letting their agencies do the same here.

Should we pay attention at all to Australian foreign policy?

All these disturbing anti-democratic actions in Australia are unfortunately relevant to Canada because the Scheer Conservative opposition, and too much of our media, constantly critique Canadian government policy by contrasting it to Australian policy, most particularly and troublingly in the context of Canada’s relationship to China, without any additional commentary on the ideological bent of the Australian government.

Will Canada’s Huawei intelligence assessment be in Canada’s national interest?

Each of the Five Eyes nations has its own national intelligence capacity. In the superb National Film Board documentary, High Wire – the story of how Canada came to its decision not to join the USA in its illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq – then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien spoke of how the Americans were always trying to provide him with intelligence briefings, but he steadfastly resisted. He would invariably respond:

I have my own people.

But since the September 11 attacks on the USA, we have seen a litany of horrific cases where our intelligence officials have deferred to their American counterparts, in disregard not only of Canadian and international law but to the fundamental rights of individual Canadian citizens.

The list is long but suffice it to mention here: Mahar Arar, Omar Khadr, Muayyed Nureddin, Abdullah Almalki, and Ahmad Elmaati.

Federal judge finds CSIS has “cavalier” approach to the rule of law

And a July 16th ruling by the Federal Court of Canada does nothing to renew our confidence in the ethical standards of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Mr. Justice Gleeson wrote:

The circumstances [of this case] raise fundamental questions relating to respect for the rule of law, the oversight of security intelligence activities and the actions of individual decision-makers.

There is another factor to consider. The respective intelligence agencies of the Five Eyes countries each have a vested interest in keeping their powerful American counterparts happy, to protect their “access” to the motherlode – American intelligence information. Does this, in turn, mean they might not give sufficient weight to protecting Canada’s capacity to act independently of the US? RI President Peggy Mason asks the question another way:

Does CSIS not have a direct conflict of interest when it comes to fairly evaluating the security risks to Canada of Huawei participation in our 5G network?

The stakes are indeed high

Whatever the legitimate security concerns (about which no actual evidence has yet been made public), banning Huawei Canada from all Five Eyes 5G networks is also – and we would argue mainly – about handicapping an American strategic competitor, and reinforcing the dependence of “anglosphere” western allies on US intelligence priorities, and forcing those same allies into a US-led economic bloc against China.

As we have written about before, this is actually in no country’s interest but right wing ideologues in USA see it as the way to maintain US dominance over traditional allies, and to keep the military-industrial complex alive and well and fully-fed.

For an interesting comment on China’s role in making a bad situation worse, see: China’s deepening geopolitical hole (Minxin Pei, aspistrategist.org, 17 July 2020). The author concludes:

Chinese leaders have only themselves to blame for their growing international isolation. With an inflated sense of their power, they have overplayed a weak hand and driven friendly or neutral countries such as the UK, Canada, India, and Australia into the arms of the US, now China’s principal geopolitical adversary.

For a broader view of the issues at play, see: The American Muddle (Sheng and Geng, project-syndicate.org, 26 June 2020).

Update: For a devastating picture of what the exclusion of Huawei Canada in our 5G will actually mean, see the recent article by leading national security and intelligence expert, Professor Wesley Wark: After Huawei abandoned and coerced Canada prepares for its humiliation (Wesley Wark, globeandmail.com, 18 July 2020). (Read it and weep.) With the kind permission of the author, click Wesley Wark Globe Op Ed for a non-paywalled version in pdf. format.

Whither Canada?

In our view, absent real evidence to the contrary, the best course of action for Canada is the “middle road”, originally chosen by the UK and no doubt still their preferred option, were it not for the bigger imperative of a UK-US trade deal.

But this approach means the government of Canada must wait out the current American presidency in the hope that Democrat Joe Biden is elected President, and appoints advisors who will have the wisdom to chart a new and more productive course with China.

 This is worth waiting for.

Photo credit: Wikimedia (U.S. & China flags crashing)

 

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