UPDATED: The trouble with intelligence agencies, part two

See our 17 July blog for a review of some of the troubling issues posed to democracy by powerful intelligence agencies subject to inadequate oversight and replete with vested interests potentially at direct odds with the broader national interest. Among the questions we posed:

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?

Today we delve deeper, examining the impact of political bias, the government of Canada’s response to illegal CSIS conduct and the role of our vast, costly intelligence apparatus in Canada’s apparent failure to heed early signs of the coming pandemic.

As we discussed in the earlier blog, then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien steadfastly refused to be briefed by American intelligence operatives on the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Relying on Canadian officials turned out to be a particularly good thing when the full story of the willful distortion of raw intelligence to support the political conclusions desired by the George W. Bush administration was finally told. In the words of a 2008 Report from the Centre for Public Integrity:

It is now beyond dispute that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction or have meaningful ties to Al Qaeda. This was the conclusion of numerous bipartisan government investigations, including those by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (2004 and 2006), the 9/11 Commission, and the multinational Iraq Survey Group, whose “Duelfer Report” established that Saddam Hussein had terminated Iraq’s nuclear program in 1991 and made little effort to restart it.

In the most basic terms, this sorry saga demonstrates that whatever the capacities of the truly vast American intelligence apparatus, it is woefully vulnerable to political interference and manipulation.

And even when the organizations in question are not being pushed to interpret data in a specific way, their analysis is coloured by their own institutional and national biases.

A good example of this tendency — and how it can be counteracted — can be found in the story of UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission on Iraq.

UNSCOM and its analysis of raw data from American U2 surveillance of Iraq

While RI President Peggy Mason was Canada’s Ambassador for Disarmament to the UN, she chaired a UN Expert Group that looked at disarmament efforts in a number of contexts, including the extensive programme undertaken in Iraq beginning in 1992, pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991).

This UN-led multilateral disarmament programme was pursuant to the terms of the ceasefire agreement reached with then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to end the UN-authorized collective military action against Iraq, following its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

To ensure that Iraq’s sizeable inventory of chemical weapons was destroyed, together with its extensive biological weapons development programme, a multinational team of international experts was established, called the UN Special Commission on Disarmament in Iraq (UNSCOM). They requested raw intelligence data from a designated American U2 spy plane’s flights over Iraq to help them identify potential sites of these weapons of mass destruction (WMD). According to Ambassador Mason, here is what UNSCOM learned with respect to the analysis of the raw data from U.S. sources:

Individual UNSCOM weapons inspectors, including Americans, told me “off the record” that the analysis by the multinational team was superior to that of the USA alone, in identifying potential factory sites because it utilised a variety of national perspectives and so was not hampered by the biases and blinkers of any one nation.

Synergies in Five Eyes?

While theoretically at least, the sharing of information among the Five Eyes intelligence network’s respective members should sharpen the analysis, its “anglosphere” participants (USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) are hardly a particularly heterogenous group. But far more problematic is the vast power differential between the USA and the rest of the members, both in geopolitical terms and in sheer volume of data collected and analysed. In such circumstances, rather than productive synergies emerging, undue deference to American perspectives and imperatives is a much more likely outcome.

Nowhere has this been on greater display than with respect to the Global War On Terror (GWOT), still ongoing, although that terminology is no longer used. And we noted in our earlier blog the absolutely devastating consequences this has had for individual Canadians, including Mahar Arar, Omar Khadr, Muayyed Nureddin, Abdullah Almalki, and Ahmad Elmaati, whose right to life, liberty and security of the person, as well as adherence by Canadian operatives to the Canadian rule of law, were sacrificed in service of close intelligence cooperation with the United States.

In the opening words of his report into the mistreatment of Nureddin, Almalki and Elmaati, Justice Iacobucci states:

At its core, this Inquiry involves the appropriate response of our democracy in Canada to the pernicious phenomenon of terrorism, and ensuring that, in protecting the security of our country, we respect the human rights that so many have fought to achieve.

(As an important aside, especially given current controversies, these inquiries point the finger as much, if not more, at the conduct of the RCMP, as that of CSIS.)

Government response to Federal Court ruling on CSIS acting outside rule of law

Last week we reported on the apparently continuing propensity for Canadian intelligence organizations to act illegally. For the Court ruling replete with redactions, click here.

What of the Government of Canada’s response?

In a joint statement, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and Justice Minister David Lametti affirmed their determination to uphold the practice of protecting Canadians “in a manner that is compliant with the law.”

Steps the Ministers have taken include:

  • Writing to the chairman of the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency to request that it look into the findings and provide recommendations on how to address the concerns raised by the court’s decision;
  • Tasking CSIS to make regular progress reports to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians; and
  • Hiring an external adviser, former Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie, to help with the implementation of the review agency’s recommendations within Justice Canada.

For his part, Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) David Vigneault issued a statement outlining the measures his organization had undertaken:

In response to the Court’s concerns, I commissioned a review of CSIS’s duty of candour obligations. We are currently in the process of implementing changes in line with the recommendations of this review; properly resourced with a dedicated project team.

Intelligence agencies and pandemic warning — how did that work out?

But, of course, we want more from our intelligence agencies than acting within the law and refraining from undermining the fundamental human rights of the Canadian citizenry they are supposed to protect. We also want some evidence of value for money.

In short, what exactly did our extensive, expensive array of intelligence agencies know about the impending pandemic, if anything, and what did they do with whatever knowledge they had?

American intelligence reporting on the coronavirus

In April 2020, ABC news reported:

As far back as late November, U.S. intelligence officials were warning that a contagion was sweeping through China’s Wuhan region, changing the patterns of life and business and posing a threat to the population, according to four sources briefed on the secret reporting, as a result of work by a little-known element of the US intelligence system, the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI).

Despite the extensively sourced and detailed reporting about the NCMI assessment, the agency took the unusual step of issuing a specific denial that any such “product” existed. The June 15, 2020 UK Oxford Research Group report Writing on the Wall? The UK and the Early Warning Signs of Covid-19 has this to say about that denial:

The Pentagon denial … might have dampened interest in the report but a week later, on 16 April, the Times of Israel reported on a Channel 12 News report that the Israel Defence Force (IDF) had been alerted to the Wuhan outbreak by the US intelligence community, also in November. The Israeli media also stated that the US had briefed NATO allies.

If this denial were false, the implications for political interference reminiscent of the Iraqi WMD saga would be enormously troubling. However, the authoritative justsecurity.org has prepared a Timeline of the Coronavirus Pandemic and the U.S. Response, which concludes that the ABC reporting probably got the timing of the NCMI report wrong:

In a careful analysis of the emergence of COVID-19 in Wuhan, Josh Marshall casts doubt on the ABC News reporting. He concludes, “I think the simplest answer is that the ABC report is simply wrong. Not in its totality necessarily but in dating the original report back to late November. If it’s a month later that starts to look plausible.”

What is undeniable, however, as detailed by justsecurity.org, is that in January-February 2020 U.S. intelligence agencies issued over a dozen detailed warnings about the threat of the virus in the President’s Daily Brief, and issued classified reports about the virus and began to form a task force of senior U.S. officials.

And what is equally undeniable is the failure of the Trump administration to heed any of these warnings. For example, on 24 February President Trump stated:

The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. … Stock market starting to look very good to me

While we can understand the challenge that any agency would have, no matter how competent and responsible, in trying to convince Donald Trump to accept information he didn’t want to hear, no such excuse exists for other Western democracies, including our own.

If the Americans had all this information in January and briefed allies through NATO and Five Eyes, what went wrong here in Canada?

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan briefed on pandemic on 17 Jan 2020

In a 22nd July article, CBC reported that a medical intelligence (MEDINT) unit within the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command briefed Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan about the COVID-19 crisis on 17 January 2020, 17 days after the World Health Organization (WHO) had been informed by China of the outbreak. It was another 10 days until the government’s incident response group — led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and composed of cabinet ministers and other senior governmental officials — met on 27 January to discuss COVID-19.

Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa professor and one of the country’s top intelligence experts, said the delay between the January 17 military briefing and the first meeting of the incident response group shows that, in the early days of the pandemic:

….there weren’t a lot of alarm bells ringing anywhere in government.

More tellingly, Wark notes that the January 17 briefing to Defence Minister Sajjan on the threat posed by COVID-19 to Canada “wasn’t particularly early,” given China was already in the planning stages for the full lockdown of Hubei province that took place less than a week later. Wark concludes:

Canada, for reasons that go unexplained, missed the opportunity to do proper risk assessments, to seize the opportunity of early warning and to get the response planning into gear….

Was there a sense of real urgency to these briefings?

The big unanswered question is surely how serious a threat the intelligence briefings made the pandemic out to be. The delay between the WHO notification and the briefing to Minister Sajjan suggests Canadian intelligence officers themselves were hardly acting with a sense of great urgency.

And this, in turn, begs the question as to how much Canadian agencies were influenced by the lack of concrete U.S. action, despite it being due to White House intransigence, not to lack of warning from the American intelligence community.

The bottom line is that whatever warnings came from our multi-billion dollar intelligence apparatus, it had seemingly little effect at all in prompting early government action to prepare Canada for the oncoming coronavirus onslaught.

Whither Canada?

In the aftermath of the pandemic, when lessons are hopefully being learned, we call on the Government of Canada to review our national security priorities and threat assessments to better align them with growing human security challenges.

UPDATE: Harper era damage to the public service continues to metastasize

A 26 July Globe and Mail article paints a devastating picture of the dismantlement of Canada’s world class virus early warning system. Here is how they describe the system in place between 2009 – 2019:

Known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN, the unit was among Canada’s contributions to the World Health Organization, and it operated as a kind of medical Amber Alert system. Its job was to gather intelligence and spot pandemics early, before they began, giving the government and other countries a head start to respond and – hopefully – prevent a catastrophe. And the results often spoke for themselves.

The fatal first steps in the system’s demise were taken in the Harper era, as part of that government’s war on science and governance, in favour of a hard-right ideology leaving the market to sort things out. The Liberals, who opposed these changes in Opposition, did not reverse them once in power. Instead they continued to divert resources to “domestic” priorities, taking the final step to shut down the alert system in May 2019.

The Harper changes in Public Health Canada, like so many of their other attacks on the public service, were designed to reduce the power and influence of the medical experts, introducing new layers of management, far removed from this expertise.

It is one of the ongoing mysteries of the 2015 Justin Trudeau majority government that they did not take seriously the need to engage in a full-scale rebuilding of government capacity.

 Photo credit: Wikimedia images (U.S. Air Force)



Tags: 1995 UN Expert Group on Verification in all its Aspects, Canadian Forces Intelligence Command, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Five Eyes Intelligence Network, Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), Global War on Terror (GWOT), Iacobucci Commission, justsecurity.org, medical intelligence unit (MEDINT), National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM)