Fallacy Friday: Security agencies utterly lacking in credibility on security issues

Image description: One of those obnoxious "Keep calm and carry on"-style posters, reading "Keep calm and trust me - I'm an expert".

Image description: One of those obnoxious “Keep calm and carry on”-style posters, reading “Keep calm and trust me – I’m an expert”. (Image credit: Author)

The Ministers of Defence and Public Safety tout the “prominent” and “robust” roles that the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) will play in Canada’s retooled military operations in Iraq, but aren’t at liberty to reveal exactly what the two agencies will be doing.

Two former high-ranking national security officials pen an editorial urging the Trudeau government to retain and expand upon new powers granted to intelligence agencies by the controversial C-51, arguing that (unspecified) threats to Canada have “seldom been so high”.

In the wake of a pair of high-profile scandals at CSE and CSIS, officials reassure a worried public that the difficulties were the cause of “inadvertent” errors or the behaviour of a “rogue” lone (now-ex-)employee, and that when it comes to privacy concerns, people don’t really have anything to worry about.

How are we to assess these stories and others like them? The occasional dispatches we mere mortals receive from the lofty milieu of those with above-top-secret clearances are always glaringly incomplete, with key details replaced by an index finger coyly placed upon a smilingly tight lip. It’s often implied that if we just knew all the details, then of course we’d see things their way, but since for obvious reasons certain facts just can’t be revealed, we’ll just have to trust them.

But there’s a strong case to be made for doing the exact opposite – to treat each and every claim made by a national security official, a government minister, or a private-sector apologist for the surveillance apparatus with extreme skepticism or disbelief. Because of informational asymmetry and perverse incentives, the public has effectively no ability to objectively assess the claims of intelligence and security agencies, and no compelling reason to accept on faith alone that we aren’t being deceived in some way. 

To begin with, let’s be clear – there isn’t any way for us to know whether what we’re being told about the conduct of intelligence agencies is true. A lot of the time, it’s hard to be sure what exactly we’re being told at all. In discussing the role of CSE in Canada’s “non-combat operation” in Iraq, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan presents its operations as an unqualified boon to the coalition:

“Enhanced intelligence capability will help protect our forces in theatre as well as those of our coalition and host nation partners,” Sajjan said.

“Therefore, we will significantly increase the resources we dedicate to intelligence, both in northern Iraq and theatre-wide. Our intelligence capabilities will help the coalition and Iraqi security forces develop a more sophisticated picture of the threat and improve our ability to target, degrade and defeat ISIL.”

But when it came to specifics, Sajjan seemed to delight in being circumspect:

“Unfortunately, I’m not going to talk (about it) in public for operational security reasons,” he said.

“The last thing you want to be able to do is show your hand to (ISIL) and let them know what type of capability you are bringing in, but we have very unique capabilities for the coalition, and what I will say is capabilities for theatre-wide for the entire coalition and then we have very specific capabilities for our troops in the north as well.”

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was similarly vague on the subject of CSIS’s role in the conflict, saying only that “We are providing new and additional intelligence capabilities in the region and while by its very nature I cannot elaborate, CSIS will have a role to play…It will certainly be an increased role to accomplish larger objectives.”

And that’s understandable. These agencies are in the business of operating secretly, after all – nobody would expect a full public run-down of their plans and capabilities.

But these agencies are also in the business of deceiving and misleading, as are politicians in many ways. And what isn’t being said here is far more revealing than what is being said.

For instance, outside experts consulted by the Canadian Press for their article on the deployment of CSIS and CSE operatives into the region cited frequent American complaints that they lack sufficient detailed intelligence about the conflict and its combatants. The implication is that Canadian humans and signals intelligence agencies will be able to aid the coalition in identifying and targeting ISIS/Daesh militants.

But intelligence researchers and human rights advocates are warning anybody who will listen that the metadata-driven approach to targeting employed by the CIA and NSA is massively flawed and has led to the death of perhaps thousands of innocent people in the Middle East and North Africa. The United States selects targets for extrajudicial execution by drone strikes on the strength of metadata alone in many cases, meaning that it doesn’t know the identities of the people it is killing.

These practices have been condemned by mainstream liberal human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as potential war crimes, and Canada could become directly complicit in those crimes by contributing signals intelligence to the coalition against ISIS/Daesh.

As for CSIS, their role in Canada’s war in Afghanistan is briefly touched upon in the CP article, and spun rather positively, implying that they will provide useful intelligence to keep Canadian forces in Iraq safe. What’s omitted is any mention of their role in detainee interrogation in Afghanistan, a role which directly implicated them in the detainee abuse scandal that ought to have brought down Stephen Harper’s government.

Back during the Afghanistan War, CSIS was more constrained in terms of what they were allowed to do. With the passage of C-51 last year, they are now allowed to engage in “disruptive” activities abroad, a power they did not have before, and so the role they play in Iraq could be a lot more open-ended – with a lot more potential for things to go wrong. (Note Goodale’s mention of an “increased role” and “larger objectives”.)

None of this publicly available information is mentioned by the Ministers responsible – and why would it be? They have absolutely no incentive to point any of this information out!

Many aspects the Trudeau government’s revamped plan for the war non-combat operation have come under heavy criticism from all sides of the political spectrum. Some have accused the government of timidity in the face of a heinous enemy. Others say that the new plan, with its emphasis on in-theatre training, will draw Canada inexorably into a quagmire of a war. Regardless, people have been able to criticize and make their cases on the basis of known and open facts.

When it comes to the intelligence aspect of the war, however, we don’t have the luxury of facts; we must instead rely on anodyne assurances from officials with no incentive to be honest with us about the shortcomings of whatever proposal they’re secretively presenting.

And quite frankly, these assurances aren’t by themselves credible. Lacking any reason to take them at face value, the public instead ought to be extremely skeptical of the role that CSIS and CSE will play in this conflict.

Similarly. vague fear-mongering about the threat level intelligence agencies are facing ought to be taken with several tablespoons of salt. And there’s no other way to describe the warnings laid out by Ray Boisvert, former assistant director of intelligence at CSIS, and Luc Portelance, former President of the Canada Border Services Association (CBSA), in their recent National Post editorial.

The piece is accompanied by a photo of RCMP tactical officers on Parliament Hill the day of 2014’s parliamentary shooting, a shooting which is lazily lumped in with attacks in Paris, Jakarta, Burkina Faso, and San Bernardino in the introduction. This chillingly irrelevant precursor is followed by a veritable word salad of spooky rhetoric and pleas for more powers for the major intelligence agencies.

Boisvert and Portelance badly assert that “the magnitude and complexity of the threat — and the corresponding strain on our national security organizations — has seldom been so high” and urge the government, in dealing with the “problematic” aspects of C-51 (their scare quotes), also ensure that the national security agencies have the adequate tools to deal with all of these mysterious emerging threats. They caution that any oversight the Liberals implement should be done in a way which the need for “review” (again, their scare quotes) is balanced against the need for agencies to act decisively.

Specifically, they’re asking for the ability to more easily access encrypted communications (while acknowledging that this may be “discomforting to some”), greater information-sharing and collaboration with foreign intelligence organizations, tighter monitoring of who leaves Canada when and for where, increased investment in counter-radicalization (“by applying proven commercial marketing strategies”), giving our intelligence agencies a freer hand to operate overseas, investments in “cyber-resilience,” and the use of public-private partnerships for data analytics, which they assert will make Canada safer while delivering economic benefits to Canada’s tech sector.

What’s important to note about these two – and what the Post fails to point out in their credulous accompanying article – is that both are now working in the private sector, cashing in on their decades of work for intelligence and security agencies by shopping out their expertise. They would stand to benefit greatly from, for instance, investments in cyber-resilience or private-public partnerships for data analytics. In other words, they stand to benefit directly from the implementation of their proposals. To be fair, they do disclose who they work for, but they fail to mention the direct financial stake they both have in the success of their agenda.

Furthermore, agencies like the CBSA, which Portelance chaired until quite recently, would love expanded powers to monitor people’s travel itineraries, as it would meet boosts in funding and staffing levels – and their appreciation of these expanded powers would exist independently of any actual demonstrated need for these powers.

This is true for pretty much everything on Boisvert and Portelance’s wish list. Increased powers, funding, and staffing would be welcomed by all of Canada’s intelligence and security agencies, but there quite simply hasn’t been any demonstration that these powers are needed or would help to prevent any kind of violence, other than vague gesturing in the direction of (mostly foreign) attacks and lazy, unsubstantiated suggestions that threat levels are currently high. To be clear: how would any of these have helped to prevent, for instance, the Parliament Hill shooting?

The simple truth is that, because of the perverse incentive that people like Boisvert and Portelance have to advocate for these kinds of increased powers, regardless of whether they’re needed or not, the public has no good way to assess their proposal on its merits. There’s too much information that’s inaccessible for us to be able to objectively weight the factors involved, although admittedly the balance of publicly available information doesn’t exactly lend itself to the interpretation that a radical expansion in surveillance powers is needed to Keep Us Safe.

What we do know, though, is that Boisvert was an active advocate for the noxious C-51 when it was before Parliament last year, and apparently has never met expanded spying powers he didn’t like. We also know that characterizations of threat levels are not always exactly accurate, even when they come from people with high-level security clearances.

And we know that neither these two ex-high-level spymasters, nor any other senior official or bureaucrat, is at all willing to talk about the brief flurry of scandal that beset both CSIS and the CSE late last month. It now appears that nobody will be held accountable for CSIS’s repeated illegal accessing of Canadians’ tax data, and that the whole thing is going to be written off as an honest mistake. Meanwhile, CSE’s sharing of Canadians’ metadata with four other intelligence agencies is still being treated as a legitimately honest whoopsie, despite the fact that the government entirely lacks an oversight body capable of digging for answers telling them what really happened.

What’s happening here is that we’re essentially relying on CSIS and CSE to tell us that they screwed up, how they screwed up, whose fault it was, how they fixed it, and that it’s actually fixed. (Yes, SIRC oversees CSIS, although without any teeth, and the CSE actually employs its own ombudsperson internally, but neither of these amount to rigorous external review.)

The Liberals have promised to implement more robust oversight of these agencies, through a committee of politicians who will meet behind closed doors. No matter how effective this ultimately proves to be, however, the fact remains that not one person has taken accountability for the serious breaches of privacy that CSIS and CSE engaged in. Both agencies (and their apologists in Cabinet) insist that the risk to Canadians’ personal information was extremely minimal, but that’s a flat-out lie, as this blog has pointed out before.

Put simply, the issue is this: while we may not be able to access enough information to evaluate each claim the surveillance apparatus makes on its own, we do have enough historical context to know that politicians and national security officials lie and distort the facts, advocate for more powers regardless of the necessity, and are unwilling to confront inconvenient truths even when they are publicly revealed.

Given this history, the public has no reason to believe any assertion about national security made by any official, unless it’s backed up by compelling evidence. And in the cases cited here, no substantial evidence has been provided at all, merely the unsubstantiated assertions that we are threatened and that the plans laid out will help us. Given the host of perverse incentives at play here, these evidence-free claims are quite simply not good enough.

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