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Comment: Canada should keep its seat in the spy club

Royal Canadian Navy Sub-Lt. Jeffery Delisle supplied top-secret intelligence to Russia from 2007 until his arrest in January 2012.

Royal Canadian Navy Sub-Lt. Jeffery Delisle supplied top-secret intelligence to Russia from 2007 until his arrest in January 2012. Some say Delisle’s actions seriously damaged Canada’s participation in the “Five Eyes” intelligence community — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States — the most exclusive intelligence-sharing club in the world.

However, as troublesome as Delisle’s actions might be, they will not permanently impair Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangements. The relationship is made of sterner stuff.

Besides, new strategic threats will come to augment, not replace, existing threats. The Five Eyes intelligence community will need more Canadian intelligence products, not fewer, and vice versa.

The Five Eyes intelligence community is not monolithic, yet it is more cohesive than generally known. With no formal overarching international agreement governing Five Eyes intelligence relationships, the community is more of a complex, co-operative network of linked autonomous intelligence agencies. Individual organizations follow their own nationally legislated mandates, but they interact with a profound sense of confidence in each other and a degree of professional trust so strong as to be unique in the world.

Take, for instance, the relationships found in three separate intelligence disciplines: signals intelligence, national assessment and defence intelligence communities.

Cyberspace is now an accepted domain of warfare, and Five Eyes signals-intelligence agencies are the principal “warfighters” engaged in a simmering campaign of cyber-defence against persistent transnational cyber threats.

The Communications Security Establishment Canada is Canada’s national cryptologic agency, and Canada’s gateway to the Five Eyes signals-intelligence community. Five Eyes signals-intelligence partners have similar bifurcated operational mandates. Their first mission aims to provide information-assurance services within government. The second mission is to provide government decision-makers with foreign signals intelligence.

The world is too big and there are too many threats for any one partner to act alone.

Even the massive U.S. National Security Agency cannot operate in isolation. Each Five Eyes signals-intelligence partner covers a specific area of the globe in accordance with its national priorities, but the partners’ collection and analysis activities are orchestrated to the point that they essentially act as one.

Interestingly, Five Eyes partners apparently do not target each other, nor does any partner evade its national laws by requesting or accepting such activity. There is, however, no formal way of ensuring such eavesdropping does not take place. Each partner is trusted to adhere to this “gentleman’s agreement” among allies.

Within the Canadian government’s Privy Council Office, the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat provides strategic intelligence assessments to government. Acting abroad, the IAS represents Canada in the Five Eyes national-assessments partnership.

Inter-agency contact is routine at working levels, where the default inclination is to consult widely before assessments are finalized and provided to government. The cross-pollination of analysis and critique serves to inform, not sway, national decision-making.

The Chief of Defence Intelligence represents Canada in the Five Eyes defence intelligence community. When deployed outside Canada, Canadian Forces units invariably operate within a Five Eyes intelligence framework, as was the case during Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan. The Five Eyes defence-intelligence community is interlaced with similar organizational links in all five domains of warfare — maritime, land, air, space and cyberspace — producing a multi-level structural density not seen in other Five Eyes intelligence groupings.

Other Canadian Five Eyes intelligence links, all based on trust and confidence, serve to enhance Five Eyes cohesiveness.

It is this cohesiveness that makes Delisle’s action nothing more than a pesky speed bump on the road to enhanced intelligence co-operation. Bigger issues loom. Evolving strategic security threats will demand strengthened and enduring Five Eyes intelligence co-operation.

Not only must Canada work hard to maintain the confidence and trust of all Five Eyes partners in the wake of the Delisle escapade, the Five Eyes intelligence community itself must remain integrated, effective and dominant.


James Cox is a professor of Canadian foreign policy with the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. His paper, Canada and the Five Eyes Intelligence Community, was recently published by the Canadian International Council and Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.