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THINKING OUT LOUD: Canadian intelligence and foreign interference

HALIFAX, N.S. — For his entire career, he’s worked in the intelligence and security community. And Phil Gurski isn’t happy with the way the issues with ... Phil Gurski, an author and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consultants, has worked in the intelligence and security community for over 30 years. He is not a fan of public commissions and believes that politicians of all stripes in Canada don't get intelligence. He also believes that most sensitive intelligence is shared without any kind of strings attached, and that the Five Eyes is the gold standard of intelligence clubs in the world. Finally, he believes that the intelligence that CSIS has provided to governments has been providing a series of governments that do not deserve to be ignored.

THINKING OUT LOUD: Canadian intelligence and foreign interference

Published : 2 weeks ago by Sheldon MacLeod in

HALIFAX, N.S. — For his entire career, he’s worked in the intelligence and security community. And Phil Gurski isn’t happy with the way the issues with China have been handled. He’s an author and President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consultants. He’s spent decades in that sphere focussed mainly on terrorism but knows of the work his former colleagues have done. And he says politicians of all stripes in this country don’t get intelligence. Or at least they don’t understand what it is and why it’s important. And that’s led us to the issues that were the subject of former Governor General David Johnston’s interim report. Gurski explains why he doesn’t like public commissions, why Johnston’s accusations about the alleged leaker are unfair and how his conclusions are anything but the final answers.

Sheldon MacLeod: Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consultants, and he worked with the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service in Canada. Just to give some background here, what did you do with CSIS?

Phil Gurski: I joined CSIS in 2001, after having spent 17 and a half years with another intelligence organization, Communications Security Establishment, which is mentioned by the way in the former Governor General's report. I spent 32 years in intelligence with CSIS. I was the strategic analyst on the terrorism side, and more narrowly on Islamist terrorism, think ISIS think all kinds of things like that.

And I looked at our investigations, what we're finding on Canadians who were radicalizing, joining groups, planning attacks. And since my retirement in 2015, I've also worked with the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police), with their anti-terrorism section. And as well, I'm the author of six books and counting, on terrorism — including a history of terrorism and cannabis and Confederation.

SM: Do you have a sense how security, and secrets, and government communications are different in Canada than they are in the United States? And I ask because we are inundated with American influences. How does Canada differ?

PG: We differ in a couple of ways. So first, your listeners have probably come across the term The Five Eyes in recent months because of this whole Chinese incident. The Five Eyes is the gold standard of intelligence clubs in the world. We’re a member, along with Australia, Great Britain, United States and New Zealand — sort of the Anglosphere. And it's been a post-World War II intelligence sharing group. Most sensitive intelligence is shared generally without any kind of strings attached.

We are very much a consumer rather than a contributor, in many ways, because of the size. I mean, the Americans have 100 times our size. And one of the problems, it comes to you in the report, in some way, we don't have an intelligence culture, per se, in Canada. What I mean by that is that officials have a variety of political stripes, whether they're politicians or civil servants, don't get intelligence, they don't understand it, they don't see its value.

And as a consequence, they don't always know how to use it. And sometimes they ignore it. In the States, and in Great Britain and Australia, they're very robust, mature intelligence cultures. They understand the usefulness of intelligence and decision making. And for whatever reason, we seem to lack that here. We probably had last during the Second World War. But I noticed throughout my career in intelligence that a lot of people just didn't see the value in why we have intelligence services and why we should use the information they collect on our behalf.

SM: David Johnson is saying media reports were based on inconclusive information, (they) didn't have the entire story. Is he wrong?

PG: Yeah, that's a real tough one. There's no question that using intelligence in a public inquiry is very, very delicate. Sources are very sensitive sources. We always learn that if you start disclosing information, your sources disappear or in the worst case scenario get killed in some parts of the world. So we always have to handle it carefully.

I'm not a big fan of public inquiries, because only they don’t really achieve anything. A lot of papers written, a lot of debate, and then it kind of goes to the side and then we forget about it. On the other hand, there's no question that the intelligence that CSIS primarily has been providing a series of governments on both political stripes going back three decades. On the China issue, again, I didn't work China per se, but I'm obviously aware a lot of what my colleagues used to do. It has been very good.

You know, the Mr Johnston referred to it as piecemeal. I don't like that term. Yes, every individual piece must be considered. But we're talking about decade's worth of a track record that CSIS has devoted in terms of what China's doing in our country. Harassment of communities such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans in Hong Kong, etc, dissidents. It's quite clear to me and what's happening, going back my further contention, this message has been conveyed to governments for decades, and yet little has been done about it.

That's the problem with the intelligence culture. It's inconvenient. It interferes with other plans. Perhaps our trade relationship with China is more important than asking China to stop messing about in our backyards. So, I don't think the inquiry is the issue here. The issue is, why won't the government use the intelligence it has been provided to make better decisions and to start putting pressure on China to stop essentially interfering in our democracy?

SM: Were you surprised at the allegation in the first place?

PG: The allegation that they were doing this? None whatsoever, like I said, I worked aside alongside my Chinese analysts, colleagues and investigators at CSIS. We've known about this happening for a very long time. And I'm confident that we've provided the government with this intelligence on a regular basis. And again, politicians from both sides of the house, Conservatives and Liberals haven't always acted upon it.

And that's, that led to the so-called-leak by the alleged CSIS person to the Globe and Mail earlier this year. I don't support leaks as a matter of course, because I was always taught not to leak information. I understand that frustration. But that leak was just one small glimpse into a vast amount of intelligence that's been flagged up the line. And again, it didn't seem to have much impact on the government that was receiving it.

SM: Does it surprise you that it takes political heat for a government to act and expel a Chinese diplomat after allegations that had been somewhat well known within the intelligence community, but not publicly?

PG: It shouldn't have taken that. But as I said, and I don't want to go down the rabbit hole of what the government was thinking at the time. But it seems to me that the government did value our trade relationship with the People's Republic of China. There's obviously an awful lot of money going back and forth, and to just start expelling diplomats. And basically, what happens is you enter into a tit for tat, we ended up punting somebody, they punt someone as well. I think one diplomat was already expelled from China after we expelled someone recently. So, it's bit of a mug's game in terms of that.

But to me, the bottom line is that we have we have solid information that China is involved in activities that are not in our interest as a country, not in our interest in terms of our democracy, not in our interest in terms of protecting people who fled the People's Republic of China as dissidents, and yet we have elected or chosen rather, at the political level, not to do much about it. And as a Canadian, my question is, why do we allow a foreign power, which is not an ally of us of ours by the way, that China is not a major ally of Canada — why are we allowing them to get away with it for as long as we have when the intelligence was quite stark.

SM: David Johnson says in neither of the last two federal elections were the outcomes influenced in any way by the Chinese. Should we take him at his word?

PG: Well perhaps, but my question would be in return, how does he know that? I mean, last time I entered a polling booth, I didn't tell anybody for whom I voted. And I'm going to assume that nobody knows why each Canadian marks an X on the ballot in the way that he or she does. We don't know why people were influenced to vote. Were some affected because of threats from China? Possibly. I don't see how it's at all possible for the (former) Governor General to state that categorically the elections were not affected.

We know the Chinese tried to affect them. We know that money went back and forth. We know that they did lobby people to say things on behalf of China and voted a certain way. But do we know if it actually succeeded? I don't know the answer to that question. I'm not sure the (former) Governor General does either. To me it's a confidence building measure. Yes, our democracy is safe. Yes, we can have confidence in the voting system. But I simply don't understand how an official at that level can make a statement that is so boldly saying that the results, the efforts of the Chinese had no effect. I don't understand how he can say that.

SM: And he is saying, trust me.

PG: I think the two words that nobody wants to hear from a politician is ‘trust me’. You know, there's reasons why we go to the polls every four years. We know politicians are not everyone's favorite individual sometimes. I don't know why he would go ahead and say that. To me, the bottom line of what he was asked to do was, Are there grounds for a public inquiry? Again, I'm not a fan of it, there are those in this country, which are.

My contention is that there are certainly grounds for questioning why the government has elected not to use intelligence over the past few decades. That's my background and intelligence, we work hard to provide this. We work hard to corroborate information, multiple sources, we work hard to patch in a certain way that it's readable and usable. And at the end of the day, if governments elect to ignore it, or denounce it, then for those people working at CSIS or CSC, or whatever, they go into work in the morning, your first question is, well, why do I bother doing what I'm doing? If it's if people don't see any value in it?

I mean, the report has been a bit of a whitewash certainly that said the government did nothing wrong. I find it really hard to believe when, if the allegations are true, the leaks, I have no reason to believe they're not true. This information was not used. And it was not passed up the line, because people found it to be something that maybe complicated their lives, for the reasons I already cited, and didn't want it to complicate our relations with China.

That's to me what Mr. Mr. Johnson was tasked with doing. I think he went above and beyond that. And I'm not really all that satisfied with what I've read the report, with some of the wording in it. He blames CSIS for not distributing intelligence better. We're doing the best job we can. It's up to the officials that received the intelligence to act on it. It's not up to us to tell you what to do with it. Intelligence is one part of a greater picture, we recognize that. But for it to be completely discounted, then you have to ask the question, why do we have intelligence services in the first place?

SM: David Johnston admitted in his report that he could understand why Pierre Poilievre might not (want to get the security briefing) but that was the part of the work he says is up to opposition, other politicians to do to check his work. Was that fair?

PG: From what I've read, (in) a piece by former (Conservative) leader Erin O'Toole, recently is that he was only consulted at the start of the 11th hour by Mr. Johnston, and he was informed that the report was already in translation before the Conservatives were even consulted. So, I think it's legitimate concern on the part of the Conservatives that perhaps they weren't brought in the process early enough, given the Conservatives may have suffered the most from Chinese interference. But I understand his partisanship here as well.

That's the nature of Canadian politics, like it or not that's the way it works. I like to think that the MPs would play Team Canada on this one, rather than playing Team Conservative or Team Liberal. We had a significant challenge to our democratic process with a foreign power that did not have our best interests at heart. Trying to sway an election, whether we're successful or not, is really besides the point. And I would hope that politicians would want to get the answers to that question. As opposed to playing the partisanship game that they seem to be playing.

SM: Is there something that I didn't ask that you think is germane to this conversation before we wrap up?

PG: Yeah, the one thing that I found also very disconcerting by Mr. Johnston was he almost accused it's the so-called leaker — like I said it don't support leaks but I understand it — of malice. And that's an unfair allegation. Only the person who leaked the information knows why he or she did it. But I'm going to go on a limb and say that they did so, not just out of a sense of frustration, but out of a sense that Canadians need to know exactly what it was that our intelligence services were telling the government about this suspicious activity.

That's not malicious in nature. That's wanting Canadians to understand that something is wrong with the ship. And that information that could make the ship travel, you know, more smoothly, has been not used. So, for the (former) GG to use that kind of terminology, I think that goes a little bit too far. And it assumes as soon as an intention I don't think was ever there from the get-go.

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