The trouble with intelligence agencies part three: the crucial role of whistleblowers
In a thought-provoking blog on his Rethinking Security website, Brian Martin highlights the crucial role of whistleblowers in ensuring some measure of accountability for our most secret of public agencies, the intelligence community.
He begins with the story of a former FBI analyst who has written a book about her experience: Classified Woman: The Sibel Edmonds Story. A 2013 review of that book begins:
Sibel Edmonds worked for the FBI. She discovered corruption and reported it – and suffered reprisals. She kept fighting, taking the issue to the highest reaches of the US political and judicial system. The book Classified Woman is her story.
Martin is at pains to point out that Edmonds’ story is just one of a great number, to the point that there is even a National Security Whistleblowers Coalition in the United States.
So-called security agencies are supposed to protect us. But what if they are incompetent, corrupt and oppressive? They operate in secrecy and have impunity for crimes, so it is predictable that they are deeply flawed. The way they are set up is a prescription for corruption.
This may be a harsh conclusion but what distinguishes democracies from autocracies is accountability and that depends on rule of law, which, in turn, depends on everyone being subject to that law. The more an organization and its employees operate beyond legal reach, the more democratic accountability breaks down.
And that is indeed a recipe for corruption and abuse of power.
On potential solutions, Martin writes:
There are various options. One is administrative oversight and legislative controls. Another option is to develop independent intelligence agencies relying on citizen inputs and publicly sharing their information.
On the issue of publicly shared intelligence, an extremely interesting article, written in 2006 but more relevant than ever today, contains the following summary:
Publicly shared intelligence is the gathering and analysis of information of political value that is openly available to the public and able to be tested.
In her capacity as head of the Canadian delegation to the 1992 Biological and Toxin Weapons (BWC) Review Conference, then Disarmament Ambassador Peggy Mason (now RI President) received extensive briefings, from open-source materials only, on research programmes by states parties that potentially contravened the treaty. She comments:
The Head of the American delegation in particular was astounded that the knowledge I had was from open sources only and, in all likelihood, did not believe me.
One of the benefits of developing expertise in open-source analysis is that the intelligence agency in question is then less reliant on shared information from other agencies, such as the Five Eyes intelligence network, where U.S. supplied information, for example, will be subject first to American filtering and resultant biases.
But the main focus of the Martin article is on another indispensable element of ensuring national accountability of intelligence services – the role of the whistleblower in bringing abuses to light so official action can be taken. He writes:
Whistleblowers are people who speak out in the public interest. Most commonly, they are employees who report corruption, abuse or hazards to the public. Most whistleblowers start by informing their boss or others inside the organisation. When this fails, they go to watchdog agencies. This was the path taken by Sibel Edmonds.
Only when all official channels fail to take action — which is quite common — do some of them go public with their concerns.
But all too often those who try to expose the problems become seen as the problem, as the enemy, a danger to national security. We have written before about the extremely anti-democratic measures imposed in Australia in the name of national security, and nowhere is this truer than in the case of whistleblowers. Martin notes:
In Australia, it has become a criminal offence to be a whistleblower on national security issues or for journalists to report on them, with penalties up to five years in prison.
The picture is especially bleak in Canada, which together with Lebanon and Norway, tied for the world’s weakest whistleblower protection laws.
Canada’s Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act and its track record met only one of 20 [best practice] criteria.
This same report found Australia and the European Union tied for having the best record, but it covered only whistleblower disclosures of unclassified information, not classified material (where undoubtedly Australia would not have fared so well).
Noting the vital importance of whistleblowers to safeguarding public health in the time of COVID-19, the HuffPost article goes on to say:
The authors of the 81-page report chastised Canada for its weak legislation — which covers only public servants — and highlighting that there is scant demonstrative evidence it works.
Canada was also specifically listed in Appendix 4 of the study as having “significant national security or law enforcement loopholes” in its whistleblower laws, even in relation to unclassified information.
For more on the weaknesses of the Canadian legislation and practice see also a 2017 report from Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression, What’s Wrong with Canada’s Federal Whistleblowing System.
In 2017 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates published a report entitled Strengthening the Protection of the Public Interest Within the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act. It recommended 25 changes that the government of Canada has yet to take up in legislation.
We call on the Government of Canada to demonstrate its oft-stated commitment to democratic accountability by forthwith introducing amendments to strengthen Canada’s lamentably weak whistleblower protection legislation.
For a tangentially related, and equally worrying development, see a CBC story entitled “Stephen Harper joined ex-spymasters in company investing in Israeli security tech” (CBC News, 16 April 2021). We include here our reaction to this development in an RI tweet posted early on Friday morning:
.@ICLMG @CJPME Stephen Harper and his former National Security Chief, Richard Fadden, may be comfortable working with former Israeli spies on sensitive cyber technology but anyone who cares about human rights should not be. #cdnpoli #cdnfp https://t.co/Vs3ijRVIt4
— Rideau Institute (@rideauinstitute) April 16, 2021
And to create even more end-of-week unease, we remind folks of one of the biggest Stephen Harper stories not covered by the mainstream media during his dark tenure as Prime Minister of Canada. We refer of course to his fundamentalist connections, extensively documented by Marci MacDonald in her 2010 book The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (Random House Canada).
Some good news on Palestinian rights from the NDP 2021 Convention
On 10 April 2021, the following headline appeared in Canadian Dimension:
2021 NDP convention day two: Party takes an historic step on Palestine
Passed with an 80% margin, the resolution calls for an
- End to all trade and economic cooperation with illegal Israel settlements in Israel-Palestine and
- A suspension of bilateral trade in all arms and related material with the State of Israel until Palestinian human rights are upheld by Israel.
The main organizers behind this resolution issued a statement that reads in part:
“The adoption of this motion today was a result of a groundswell of support from the grassroots membership.
Not only is this position hugely popular with the NDP membership but it is something that is supported by the vast majority of the Canadian labour movement as well as the Canadian population at large.
Michael Bueckert, Vice-President of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), welcomed this action, stating:
For the first time, the NDP has endorsed concrete and proactive measures that the Canadian government can take to force Israel’s compliance with international law.
We at Ceasefire.ca join with CJPME in congratulating the activists who pushed for this bold and progressive policy for Palestine.
On a more sobering note, see the blog by Peter Larson on the continuing failure of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to include the Palestinian Nakba, although positive change may finally be afoot.
We call on the Government of Canada to immediately comply with established international law by ending all trade and economic cooperation with illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian territories and by suspending all bilateral trade with Israel in arms and related material and defence cooperation.
Tensions increase in Ukraine
The headline says it all: “What might be behind Putin’s latest confrontation with Ukraine” (Chris Brown, CBC News, 16 April 2021).
Theories abound as to the reason for Russia’s significant military build-up near the Ukraine border. It might be a response to insulting rhetoric from Biden over “killer” Putin, or to the sanctioning by Ukraine’s President of one of Putin’s key oligarch allies. Or maybe it is a ploy to distract attention from domestic problems in Russia.
It might be to exert pressure on Ukraine to make real concessions at the negotiating table to end the stalemate in the Minsk/Normandy peace process.
Moscow offers another rationale, as CTV news reported on 13 April:
Russia’s defence minister said Tuesday that the country’s massive military buildup in the west was part of readiness drills amid what he described as threats from NATO.
These are classical tools from the Russian military playbook: sowing confusion about Russian real intentions and limits.
President Biden, in a statement released after his second telephone conversation with President Putin since taking office, emphasized the United States’ “unwavering commitment” to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, called on Russia to “de-escalate tensions”, and then went on to say:
I proposed that we meet in person this summer in Europe, for a summit to address a range of issues facing both of our countries.
President Biden described the stated aim of the meeting as follows:
And out of that summit — were it to occur, and I believe it will — the United States and Russia could launch a strategic stability dialogue to pursue cooperation in arms control and security.
We can address critical global challenges that require Russia and the United States to work together, including reining in nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, ending this pandemic globally, and meeting the existential crisis of climate change.
Good news indeed.
Whatever the cause of the Russian military build-up, that action and the responses to it constitute dangerous, potentially escalatory activity that could easily get out of control. This in turn only underscores the need for a real push to settle the ongoing Russia–Ukraine confrontation.
For an excellent Canadian historical overview and analysis of the way forward for Ukraine, see Ukraine: At Europe’s Strategic Crossroads by Andrew Rasiulis, CGAI Fellow (April 2021).
Specifically on the role that Canada might play, he writes:
Should there in fact be a renewed opening of negotiations under the Minsk/Normandy process, Canada is well placed to make a contribution to further such negotiations. Canadian experience in peacekeeping, federalism and language rights is a factor with the potential to provide pragmatic solutions to the issues at hand.
For reasons we have discussed in a previous blog, referenced in the Rasiulis policy brief, Canada has heretofore shown no willingness to play such a constructive role. Perhaps, in the context of a post-pandemic pivot (when that day finally arrives), our new Foreign Minister will reclaim our past reputation for diplomatic peacemaking.
For a refreshing and inspiring reimagining of Canada’s moribund relations with Russia, see Revisiting Canada-Russia Relations: A New Paradigm for a Multipolar World, by Zachary Paikin, a Nonresident Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a Researcher in EU Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels (CEPS), as well as a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Global Policy Institute in London, UK.
The Nordstream 2 Russo-European Pipeline Saga
Another potential East–West flashpoint is last-ditch opposition from the USA, Poland, and Ukraine to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. International oil economist John Foster writes:
Poland is allied to the United States in a long history of opposition to Nord Stream 2, a pipeline designed to move natural gas under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany.
The US has threatened sanctions repeatedly, most recently in March 2021, asserting that the pipeline is a “Russian geopolitical project intended to divide Europe and weaken European energy security.”
But, as Foster makes clear, the divisions in Europe over this pipeline are economic in origin. Germany and central Europe see it as a vital part of their green energy future, while Poland and Ukraine oppose Nord Stream 2 because it will reduce transit fees on their own pipelines from Russia. As for the American economic “skin in the game”, Foster notes:
With fracking, the US has surplus supplies of natural gas and wants to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe, displacing Russian exports. Some US exports are already occurring, but American gas is more expensive than Russian gas.
Happily, NATO has been unable to take a firm position behind the USA on this issue, because European countries are divided.
For the cynics among us, ever alert for trumped-up geopolitical rationales for naked economic self-interest, this saga has an interesting postscript noted by John Foster:
While opposing Nord Stream 2, the US is itself importing more and more Russian oil. Meanwhile, Russia has become the third largest exporter of oil to the US, after Canada and Mexico.
For more information on the history of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the key players involved , and its likely successful completion, see “Nord Stream 2: Last-ditch opposition to nearly-completed pipeline intensifies,” by John Foster (canadiandimension.com, 14 April 2021).
Upcoming must-see webinars with an RI connection
- Webinar on 21 April 2021 at 3:00-4:00 pm EDT
- Sponsored by the Group of 78 and the McLeod Group
- Speakers include:
- Laura Macdonald on Trade
- Stephen Brown on Aid
- Bianca Mugyenyi on Diplomacy
- Peggy Mason on Defence, and
- Angela Keller-Herzog on the Environment.
- Webinar on 27 Apr 2021 at 5:00 to 6:15 pm EDT
- Sponsored by the Canadian International Council (CIC) National Capital Branch (NCB)
- Speakers will be two former Canadian Disarmament Ambassadors:
- Peggy Mason and Paul Meyer
- Webinar conference on 19-20 May 2021 with speakers that include former Ministers, former Ambassadors, including RI President Peggy Mason, and distinguished academics
- Sponsored by The Institute for Peace and Diplomacy
Click here to find out more and to sign up for email notification when registration opens.
Photo credit: Government of Canada (CSIS badge)