Andrew Kirsch: “Discussion with a Spy: What CSIS is, What it does, and Why It’s Important to Know More About It” (Spring 2023 Talk #4 Summary)

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How does spying happen in Canada, and should we be worried about it? Andrew Kirsch’s Spring Talk was an interesting presentation of what has become a currently topical issue in Canada.

He is a former Canadian intelligence officer, now working as a consultant in cybersecurity with Kirsch Consulting Group. His intention in the talk was to illuminate what our Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) does, the threats and challenges to come, and how we can better protect ourselves and our country.

In many ways, Andrew’s talk was summarized by the title of his recent book, “I Was Never Here: My True Canadian Spy Story of Coffees, Code Names, and Covert Operations in the Age of Terrorism”. He had never intended to be a spy, but terrorist attacks in the U.S. and London convinced him to change his career path from financial services to CSIS. His successful application led to intensive training and a ten-year career with the agency. He started in the role of analyst (humorously described as working in a depressing windowless room), but
progressed to field work in both open and covert operations.

CSIS itself does not have a long history. It was only set up in 1984 in response to the FLQ Crisis and a perceived need to separate security intelligence work from policing by the RCMP. Its mandate was to deal with four threats on Canadian soil: espionage, sabotage, terrorism and subversion. However, Andrew was clear in describing CSIS role as an advisory one, quite different from the CIA or FBI. CSIS gathers information on reasons to suspect criminal
behaviour, with the RCMP or other agencies doing the actual investigation leading to arrest. Moreover, CSIS is a domestic service, operating in Canada only. It relies on international input from the Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance comprising Canada, the United States, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

Most Canadians have little awareness of CSIS, and Andrew suggested three reasons why it should be better known. Firstly, CSIS relies on local communities for information, and people are more likely to talk to an agency they recognize as important to their security. Secondly, CSIS could benefit from a more balanced image. Much of the current publicity is negative, especially with respect to Chinese involvement in trying to influence politicians. Thirdly, Canadians have a tendency to be complacent about national security and should be more aware of real threats.

Andrew included a number of anecdotes in his presentation to show that the real world of spying is not as glamorous and efficient as TV shows like Homeland would suggest. He talked about glitches during “ops”: power outages while supervising surveillance specialists installing bugs, an agent stepping in dog poop on the way to an apartment installation, interruption by local police curious about the black-clad agents in an unmarked van, and the unexpected failure of technology. Moreover, he talked about the stress on personal relationships of having a job that required you to lie to your partner and family about what you do (not to mention being missing for several hours during the night with no explanation given). CSIS agents are never thanked for what they do.

Threats to Canadian security have evolved over time. When Andrew joined the service, threats were more concrete. One major concern was the radicalization of Canadians, either at home or when they went overseas to join organizations like ISIS. Much of his job was described as coffee and conversation: meeting with people and hoping that they both had information of value and could be convinced to share it. Now, the future is remote. We are connected to each other as never before. Cybercrime and cyberespionage are dominant in the spying world. Data that required expensive covert physical operations previously can now sometimes can be found openly online using Facebook, Twitter or other social media. Not only do people share useful information, but also foreign agencies deal misinformation regularly. Sometimes the largest task is not intelligence gathering, but rather intelligence sifting and evaluation. Sorting information becomes a huge task. And, security threats extend to us as individuals, not just to our country. Every phone is a potential microphone, and every person is a potential target for Internet scams. Andrew suggested that we should not put anything into an email that we would be unwilling to write on a postcard mailed to our neighbour.

A lively question period followed Andrew’s presentation. The current revelations about China’s operations in Canada were no surprise to him. Canada is a country of immigrants, many recent: the diasporas from many countries, not just China, are often threatened with extortion. Andrew was disappointed and disapproving of anonymous leaks in the agency, feeling that leakers did not have the right or competence to decide what to share. He stressed that CSIS activities were always a team effort, again different from those of an individual Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan. Moreover, much of what CSIS does is “above board” and public rather than covert. The rogue truckers’ blockade in Ottawa, Windsor and Alberta last year provided a particular challenge to CSIS. The agency’s mandate is to investigate threats to security, but did the truckers’ blocking of a border crossing constitute a threat to economic security? And, finally (and inevitably), AI does factor into the future of CSIS and other intelligence agencies both in data gathering and production.

Overall, Andrew’s talk was an interesting and very personal introduction to CSIS and the “real world” of spying in Canada. Andrew’s book is available in bookstores and at the Toronto Public

by Don Plumb