Bureaucratic reflex to 'overclassify' info blamed for bottleneck of useful data

The reluctance of Canada's intelligence and federal policing agencies to share information with the country's business community is a national security weakness that needs to be addressed, says a recently published report.

The Conference Board of Canada analysis is based on a survey conducted among corporate security professionals across the country, who give federal agencies poor marks for the relevance of the material they choose to share.

"In fact, one in three private sector respondents chose "poor" to describe the quality of information and intelligence received from domestic intelligence agencies," said the report, which was released with little fanfare in late January.

"This is a worrisome figure, as intelligence agencies play a vital role in safeguarding national security, and the private sector owns the majority of critical infrastructure."

A bureaucratic reflex 

At the heart of the matter, according to the research, is a reflex by bureaucrats to stamp information secret rather than evaluate whether it's in the national interest — or the interest of security to share.

"From our discussions and background research, we also found that while legal barriers to sharing government information and intelligence were limited, a culture of unwillingness to share was more of an issue," said the report.

The report did not name the institutions, but the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Communications Security Establishment, RCMP, National Defence and Global Affairs Canada would all have some some contact with the business community.

"Going forward, it will be important to ensure that the classification process does not prevent the sharing of valuable information without due cause," the study said.

Aside from the issue of preventing crime as well as terror and cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, the report is relevant in light of the RCMP investigation into leaks of classified information at National Defence.

At the heart of that probe, which precipitated the suspension of the military's deputy commander, is the question of whether sensitive information — spread through either leaks to the media or contacts with the defence industry — should be classified in the first place.

Accusations of stonewalling

The report, naturally, does not reference the criminal investigation, but it does paint a compelling picture of the people on the inside and the environment in which they operate.

"There is also a cultural aspect to this in that security and intelligence stakeholders may have a bias toward highly classified material and overclassify documents, with a better-safe-than-sorry approach," said the analysis.

The concerns are echoed by senators and parliamentarians, who've been fighting the bureaucracy for information in four federal departments.

A bipartisan trio of MPs and a senator, recently interviewed by the Ottawa-based publication The Hill Times, recently complained that officials are stonewalling individual and committee information requests.

This "need-to-know culture in government is slowly shifting," says the study, which also says it's imperative that government security classification practices evolve so public servants are "given more authority to share."

According the survey, companies believe they receive better quality information about potential threats by dealing with local police or trade associations than with federal intelligence officials.

A spokeswoman for CSIS was unable to provide comment on Thursday.

But Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa professor and one of the country's leading experts on intelligence, says he's not surprised by the findings of the report.

He acknowledged the "culture of secrecy," but said there are a number of practical obstacles for sharing intelligence with the private sector.

The classification of information and the sensitivities of sources are among the challenges, but also the attitude of corporations.

"The private sector has a tendency to have unrealistic expectations about what can be shared," he said. "It tends to ask too much."