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Global Affairs needs to get a grip on its most sensitive intelligence activities, committee says

Liberal MP David McGuinty, chair of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians: 'The Canadian people should know that we can do better.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)
Liberal MP David McGuinty, chair of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians: 'The Canadian people should know that we can do better.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)

A parliamentary committee is warning that the country's foreign ministry is almost "completely absent" when it comes to tracking key overseas intelligence activities that could create diplomatic incidents - especially offensive cyber operations.

The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians' (NSICOP) has conducted its first-ever review of Global Affairs Canada, which has an intelligence-gathering section that usually gets very little attention.

The committee released a special report late Friday.

In the 100-page review, the committee cited a risk of the foreign minister being left in the dark regarding intelligence-driven operations - such as cyber attacks directed by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), the country's electronic surveillance and defence agency.

"The internal governance of the [Global Affairs] Department's national security and intelligence activities is inconsistent, and in some areas completely absent," said the committee report, tabled late Friday in the House of Commons.

The report notes that the department has a strong grip on information related to international security programs (policies on counterterrorism, nuclear policy, weapons of mass destruction and defence budget analysis) but "for its most sensitive intelligence activities, the opposite is true."

Because a cyber attack launched from Canada could create diplomatic blowback, the foreign minister is required to sign off on such operations, along with the defence minister.

Global Affairs is also supposed to be intimately involved with and aware of cyber operations. It's supposed to present risk assessments and determine whether the operations comply with international law.

According to the partially redacted report, CSE planned four cyber operations but executed only one between 2019 and 2020. Those operations were intended "to disrupt the activities of terrorists and violent extremists," the committee said.

Global Affairs, the committee points out, is not required to report regularly "on the full spectrum of its national security and intelligence activities" - a gap that often leaves the department's own minister in the dark.

Specific examples of this concern were redacted from the public version of the report, leaving behind only one phrase: "the paragraph noted the Department's failure to inform the Minister of important issues."

In an interview with CBC News, committee chair and Liberal MP David McGuinty would not say whether the committee actually uncovered cases of the minister not being informed of a cyber operation.

'The public should be concerned'

"I can't tell you anything more than that," McGuinty said, adding that accountability is "a two-way street" and it's incumbent on the minister to ask questions and demand to be informed.

"We want to see the minister more directly involved, and for that matter directing security and intelligence activities at [Global Affairs Canada]," he added.

"The public should be concerned. The Government of Canada should be concerned because ultimately our system is predicated on ministerial accountability. The Canadian people should know that we can do better."

The report also issued a warning about the department's role in responding to terrorist hostage-takings abroad.

The committee found that there is no framework for National Defence, the RCMP and the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) to work together with Global Affairs during such crises.

"Successive governments have failed to provide direction for a framework to address such critical incidents or provide specific direction on individual cases," the report said.

MINUSMA, the UN Mission in Mali
MINUSMA, the UN Mission in Mali

One the cases the committee examined involved the kidnapping of Édith Blais, a Sherbrooke, Que., native who was captured along with her traveling companion, Luca Tacchetto, in December 2018 by an armed Islamic terrorist group in eastern Burkina Faso.

The pair made headlines when, after 450 days in captivity, they escaped their captors in Mali and flagged down a passing truck.

Many portions of the committee's findings related to Blais case are redacted, but the report shows government officials considered mounting a rescue mission and debated the matter at length, but "over the course of the following months, the viability of a rescue option steadily diminished."

The committee report noted Global Affairs ordered an independent review of how that case and the January 2019 murder of another Canadian - Kirk Woodman - in Burkino Faso were handled. Written by a former CSIS director, the review found the government's approach to foreign hostage-taking was "ineffective" and ministerial direction was lacking.