Canada's Leading Defence Magazine




Article Submission by Samuel Associates Ottawa


Do we need to send Canadians abroad to spy on our enemies?

Canada has no foreign human intelligence service – an espionage agency – like the British or Australian Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). A Canadian secret service, properly directed and tightly controlled by the government, appropriately staffed and operationally aggressive, could well produce high-quality intelligence for Canada and its close allies pursuant to a few carefully selected priorities, like nuclear weapons proliferation. 

It is wrong to say that Canada currently has no foreign intelligence capability at all, as some allege. Canada’s Communications Security Establishment carries out cyber and signals intelligence operations against entities outside Canada. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service collects foreign intelligence to a limited degree.Global Affairs Canada uses its diplomats overseas to gather sensitive information from foreign politicians and officials. The Canadian Armed Forces produce significant imagery intelligence from satellites or drones and deploy Defence Attachés abroad. There is a vast amount of information publicly available from the media and academe, which, read with discrimination – just as raw secret intelligence reports must also be – can be most insightful. Canada’s leaders will not always be one hundred percent informed on all issues, but they are never entirely blind.

Some public essays on the subject have made risibly extravagant claims about what a Canadian foreign intelligence service could do. And these articles typically address the pros of having a service but evade the cons. Realism is vital. No debate about whether Canada should, or should not, have such a service can afford to ignore the good and the bad. Nor should expectations, such as the number of objectives a small service could attack, be exaggerated.

Intelligence agencies seek to uncover enemy secrets by secretly intercepting communications, cyber-hacking computers, and photographing facilities and armies. But some deep secrets cannot be discovered except by human spies – by espionage – since not every secret is recorded on a computer. For example, any Iranian decision to make nuclear weapons will almost certainly be transmitted verbally, not electronically. This should not, of course, obscure that so much human activity these days leaves digital ‘footprints’ or ‘crumbs’ that can be detected.

What then is espionage? A terse definition is ‘spies secretly stealing secrets’. Espionage is not done by heavily armed ‘spies’ shooting their way into a secret enemy facility; this is utter Hollywood nonsense. And note well – intelligence officers only very rarely spy themselves. Instead, they suborn foreigners to spy for them. They get humans who are inside the espionage agency’s targets to do the spying; these insiders are what professionals call ‘agents’, not the intelligence officers who control them. The spring that drives the machinery of espionage is the human relationship of the intelligence officer and his agent. Effective espionage services aggressively hunt for potential agents; they do not passively wait for them to show up at, say, an embassy and volunteer.

But why spy at all? Because Canada’s enemies have many secrets they keep from us to give them serious advantages over Canada and its allies in peace, in grey-zone conflict and in armed conflict. Contrary to the belief of some, these secrets do not all reside on the Internet, waiting to be discovered; if they were there, Osama bin Laden would have been found and killed years earlier. Thus, some secret intelligence operations are necessary, and human intelligence services are required to conduct espionage against whatever proves impervious to technical forms of intelligence attack.

Canada, to the dismay, sometimes disbelief, of many Canadians, has enemies – calling them just ‘competitors’ or ‘adversaries’ is to sugar-coat what they do to us. To know the secrets of how they hurt and especially will in future harm Canadians, intelligence collection, including human spying, on those enemies is vital. Since the hurt is often done secretly, we need some foreigners in the enemy camp to spy for us. To quote a former Chief of the British SIS, we need foreigners to betray that which needs betraying. We need them to spy on that which needs spying on – like nuclear weapons proliferation.

A Canadian secret service would garner for the country key strategic advantages. It would send a powerful signal to allies – and enemies – that Canada is a strong, committed partner in defence of the West in a dangerous world. If the service was genuinely first-rate, it would yield a disproportionate value relative to its costs. Some Government political and operational decisions would be much better informed, and some illusions dispelled.

Sending the espionage service’s reports to allies would result in those allies sending us more of their human intelligence than Canada now gets; we will get back rather more than we give – as is currently the case with our Five Eyes intelligence alliance. In that sense, Canada would turn an intelligence profit.

Provided the Canadian espionage service is tough and aggressive, rather than being populated by milksops, its establishment would send a powerful signal to Canadians about our national grit and determination not to be messed with. But if it is a timid, passive agency, this would be painfully clear to the world; in that case, we would be better off without it. A mere (and expensive) vanity piece would earn Canada nothing but the contempt of allies and enemies alike.

“A Canadian foreign intelligence service would have to be operationally aggressive;
if not, it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.”


Realistically, no espionage agency can spy on any and every target that government might wish it to; no Canadian service would ever be large enough. The targets selected must be a few which pose a strategic threat to Canada’s vital interests. Moreover, the targets selected must represent long-term threats; successfully recruiting human espionage sources to spy on threats takes months, even years. Therefore, a secret human intelligence service cannot chase CNN stories or be expected to begin reporting on a new priority overnight. Attempting to rush espionage will result in embarrassing failures. Espionage is a slow business and cannot be hurried.

Two more points. Given the central importance of cyber operations to espionage, a Canadian service must have a strong in-house cyber team, and its officers must all be very computer savvy. Second, it is no good to run exquisitely effective espionage operations if there is no will or capacity on the part of government to act on the intelligence received. If nuclear weapons proliferation is the target, and we learn that such-and-such a country is secretly developing nuclear weapons, some sort of action must be taken. If not, to what end the whole exercise – why spy at all? (That said, while Canada may not be able or wish to act, a close ally might be willing and capable.)

It will take an entire generation for any new espionage service to reach full operational capability, and thus the delivery of intelligence until then may be less than hoped. Still, rushing things would be a recipe for frequent failures. It would be better to advance at a more measured pace, allowing service officers to gain experience and confidence. If Canada wants a highly effective service by 2050, we had better set it up pretty damn quick.

It would be idle to imagine there are no downsides to a Canadian espionage service. Espionage is operationally and morally hazardous. It would cost at a minimum several hundred million dollars a year. Inevitably, some operations will be blown to Canada’s embarrassment, though typically, all that happens is that a few diplomat-spies get punted. Some believe that all secret services eventually start killing people and sabotaging things. Still, rogue behaviour can be prevented by tight, active political control and by denying the service any capacity for violence. (In this vein, neither the Communications Security Establishment nor the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, have ever been accused of such vicious tactics.)

If you really want to know how espionage works, ditch the silly fictions of screen and page. Instead, turn to quality non-fiction books. I recommend, for example, “The Spy and the Traitor” by Ben Macintyre or “The Art of Betrayal” by Gordon Corera; both are fascinating and instructive. From works like these, it is clear – crack espionage services work subtly, silently, carefully – and their officers are tough-minded and highly intelligent.

The Government of Canada must seriously examine establishing a secret intelligence service by weighing the pros and cons. To govern is to choose. Choose well.


Colonel R. Geoffrey St. John, MSM, CD (Ret’d, Canadian Armed Forces Intelligence Branch), Senior Research Associate, Samuel Associates Ottawa




Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top
Please fill out the following information to be added to our newsletter distribution list.
Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.