NEW! Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Take the quiz and Win a Trivia Challenge prize pack!

Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Take the quiz and Win a Trivia Challenge prize pack!

Secret Security



This spring, in the unlikely town of Norman Wells, N.W.T., just south of the Arctic Circle, a small group of al-Qaida-inspired Islamic militants were on the attack. They wanted to sabotage North America’s oil supply and the RCMP and the Canadian Forces wanted to stop them in the act. Though it was only an exercise, the scenario was carefully designed to represent the kind of attack many experts believe is inevitable.

The target is Canada’s critical infrastructure: the basic, but vital components of society–power generation, governance, water supply, transit, education and financial systems. In the Norman Wells scenario, the outcome of a successful attack would be clear–a well-placed blow against the oil supply could have major consequences for North America’s economy.

Almost six years after the September 11 attacks, Canada, like most Western countries, is taking this particular form of national security a lot more seriously than it once did. These potential targets are broader and more strategic than terrorism of old–typified by relatively straightforward plane hijackings and hostage takings–because attacks against critical infrastructure aren’t merely intended to gain attention for a political cause, they are intended to undermine a nation’s power. In this sense, this new form of conflict is not unlike being in a very slow war–a war fought not against a rival army, but against a fluid and self-generating network of combatants who draw their inspiration from al-Qaida and the ideology of militant Islam.

In this conflict, Canada’s national security strategy has many layers. The first and currently most publicized is the work that the Canadian Forces and others are doing in distant lands to create peace and stability. It’s not only in Afghanistan that this stabilization work goes on, but in other places like Jordan, where RCMP trainers work with Iraqi police recruits, or all across Africa and the Middle East, where small detachments of peacekeepers work toward stability. These activities all represent one end of the spectrum–the old military doctrine of forward defence–stop them over there so you don’t have to fight them over here.

In many ways, the scenario played out in Norman Wells represents the other end of the spectrum–as it tested Canada’s ability to respond to a successful terrorist attack. In between these extremes of forward defence and response, however, lies a whole other world of activity, one normally kept out of public sight and well below the radar. This is the world of shadowy intelligence agents, electronic intercepts and around-the-clock surveillance–it is the world of spies.

While almost everyone has heard of the CIA and MI6, the Canadian version is not nearly so famous. In Canada, the two main intelligence agencies are the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Their job isn’t to respond to terrorist attacks–like the one staged in Norman Wells–instead their job is to stop such attacks before they happen. Their task is massive–and even they readily admit they will miss something, sooner or later–but they are on the very front lines of the effort to keep Canadians safe.

In Ottawa’s urban east end, concealed behind a small forest and carefully defended, sits CSIS headquarters, the epicentre of Canada’s security and intelligence system. The building is grand in a bureaucratic way–its imposing stone and glass structure squats tactically behind a false front, a careful distance away from the parking lot with its threat of car bombs.

And the threat is all too real. Though CSIS may strive to keep a low profile, it has inevitably caught the attention of a certain crowd. When the group of 18 alleged would-be terrorists was apprehended in June 2006 in the Toronto suburbs, one of the targets they were reportedly conspiring to attack–in addition to raiding the Parliament Buildings and beheading Prime Minister Stephen Harper–was CSIS.

“The goal of any terrorist group would be to attack an institution or a symbol, that’s one part of it,” said Barbara Campion, a CSIS intelligence officer currently serving in a communications role. “But our investigation was very active. They felt targeted. Their attack would have taken out CSIS in Toronto, probably our largest regional office. At certain times virtually the whole office was working on that case.”

While that case is still working its way through the legal system, the audacity of the alleged plot–and the fact that 18 Canadians were thought to be involved and that at least 12 have since been charged with terrorism-related offences –served notice to Canadians that the threat of terrorism has not gone away. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks there was an extensive re-examination of the way security and intelligence agencies worked and co-operated with each other. As the American investigation into the attacks–the 9/11 Commission–showed, in the months before the attacks there was no lack of evidence about what was about to happen. Each of the main security and intelligence organizations–the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon–had all gathered pieces of the puzzle, but there was no agency specifically tasked with putting those pieces together. For the Americans then, one of the clearest lessons of 9/11 was that its various agencies weren’t co-operating enough, or in the right way.

Canada learned from the American experience. In 2004, the Paul Martin government released Securing an Open Society: Canada’s National Security Policy. Among several wide-ranging changes to Canada’s national security system, including the appointment of a National Security Adviser, was the creation of a new organization intended to serve as a central collection point for the intelligence about threats against Canada. And it was called the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre (ITAC).

“The increasing complexity of the threats facing Canada requires an integrated national security framework to address them,” states the paper. “It is critical for our key security instruments to work together in a fully integrated way to address the security interests of Canadians. The lack of integration in our current system is a key gap.”

ITAC is comprised of representatives from all the key agencies, including the Department of National Defence, CSIS, CSE, Canada Border Services Agency, Foreign Affairs, RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada, the Privy Council Office and many others. Each representative brings access to their own organization’s database, so that any intelligence collected there can be used by ITAC.

Though ITAC is housed within CSIS headquarters, they are in fact distinct from each other and the arrangement is more one of bureaucratic convenience than anything else. As Campion notes, when ITAC was created it was simply deemed easier to fold it under the CSIS umbrella than go through the legislative and organizational red tape of creating a whole new agency.

The centre is now up and running at full speed. Its director, a veteran of Canada’s security and intelligence world named Daniel Giasson, spoke with Legion Magazine about a wide range of national security topics. “When 9/11 hit, my life, and the life of others, turned around essentially. We began actually engaging the government on a daily basis, where government had to make significant decisions on many fronts–operational fronts, budget fronts, policy fronts. In fact, 9/11 became overnight the first priority of the government from a security standpoint and from a foreign relations standpoint.

“ITAC is the primary disseminator and analyst of terrorism threats in Canada,” added Giasson. “Its sole purpose is to pay constant attention to the terrorism phenomenon in Canada, in fact, I would say, the terrorism phenomenon around the world and its impact on Canada. That’s its sole mandate.”

The centre produces an average of about seven threat assessments a month for distribution to government decision-makers and first-responders such as police forces, fire departments and emergency management apparatus.

ITAC is located in a bright and well-lit wing of the CSIS building. The analysts sit in open-sided cubicles in front of wide desks that hold multiple monitors and televisions. Most of the analysts had a constant feed of news running–BBC World was the most popular.

“We receive information and or intelligence–that may be open source or classified source–on terrorism at large. It may be an event, it may be a methodology,” said Giasson. “We take that and begin to try to paint a picture by querying other sources of information. The unique advantage of ITAC is that it has access to a number of sources of information, so we will use that information and begin piecing it together with other sources of information to begin drawing an overall picture and make an assessment of what the level of threat can be.”

Giasson is in an interesting position in that, while he is ultimately responsible for identifying and preventing terrorist attacks against Canada, he also believes that such an attack is nonetheless inevitable.

“The risk is growing. Terrorism activities around the world, well, we see it every day and I take the view that risk is growing. Canada, while targeted, has not yet seen a terrorist attack on its soil. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

Despite ITAC’s position as, in effect, the central authority on terrorist activity, the centre has no direct ability to control intelligence collection.

“We will try to point out what we’re looking for. It’s a give-and-take process. We will point out information gaps. What we don’t know, for example. But the CSIS collection mandate might not always fit in with ITAC’s analytical mandate,” said Giasson. “I have the belief that as we get better known, as we produce a better product, our influence will grow so that we can actually influence that collection system.”

So while ITAC’s role as a central depot for intelligence and information is undeniably critical, it’s still the stalwarts of the Canadian national security apparatus who are charged with actually collecting that intelligence–and there is no larger collector of counter-terrorism intelligence in Canada than CSIS itself. Established in 1984, CSIS has approximately 2,600 employees scattered across Canada and deployed abroad in at least 30 foreign countries.

In April 2006, CSIS director Jim Judd testified before the Senate’s committee on National Defence and Security, providing a detailed glimpse into a world normally closed off to most Canadians.

CSIS, said Judd, “is a national security intelligence service whose principal focus is on threats to the security of Canada or Canadians, wherever they may be. The organization’s mandate is to collect intelligence and advise government with respect to threats to the security of Canada or Canadians, and we do that through collecting information and intelligence through a variety of mechanisms.

“Some of the issues we deal with that are of direct relevance to national security would be a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, state support for terrorism, or obviously state support which is inevitably the case with respect to either foreign interference in Canada or foreign intelligence activities in Canada… currently, the preponderance of our investigative activity is terrorism related,” said Judd.

Judd, like Giasson, believes the threat of a terrorist attack remains quite high.

“As you know, al-Qaida has on a number of occasions listed us as a target. We have had instances–at least two cases currently before the courts, on which I cannot comment–where terrorist activity in Canada was an issue. A number of individuals at any given time are under investigation in Canada–Canadians, visitors or foreign residents–for terrorism. Generally speaking, for us and for most western governments, the threat posed by terrorism remains the pre-eminent security threat today and possibly for the foreseeable future.

“All that said, as a general rule, I try to be modulated in describing the risk, because I do not know that there is much to be gained by scaring people about these things. My hope has always been that we will deal with the threats as effectively as possible and, in an ideal world, prevent them from materializing. Unfortunately, history proves that has not always been the case.”

While at times CSIS will send officers from Canada to operate covertly, most CSIS operatives will have their identity declared to host governments. Because of its focus on Canadian domestic matters, CSIS does not have a mandate to engage in covert intelligence collection against foreign governments. However, another agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), does have such a mandate.

John Adams, director of the even more highly secretive CSE, also testified before the Senate in April. He told them, that, unlike CSIS, “we do not run agents. It is a fundamentally different business, the human intelligence business, than what we do. We deal in electrons; they deal in humans. That is a whole different demand from the point of view of expertise within the establishment itself.

“Under the National Defence Act, CSE engages in three broad areas of activity: The collection of foreign intelligence; the protection of electronic information and networks critical to the government of Canada, what we call information technology or IT, security; and, the provision of assistance to federal law enforcement and security agencies,” said Adams.

Basically, the CSE is involved in signals intelligence. They intercept communications; eavesdropping, essentially–whether that means setting up listening posts in foreign cities or scanning e-mails for dangerous activity.

“The volume and type of communications is literally endless. That combination is the challenge for us. Our vision is security through information superiority. We want to master the Internet. That is a challenge that no one institution can manage on its own,” said Adams. “At the same time, you have a threat that is very diverse, very distributed around the world, like needles in haystacks. You have the combination of the technology and the threat that, together, make it virtually impossible for anyone organization to manage it on its own.”

Though the CSE’s mandate does not permit the organization to spy on Canadians, there is a special caveat in effect–a result of the Anti-Terrorism Act–that allows the CSE much more latitude in who and what it listens to.

“The Anti-Terrorism Act filled an authority gap to allow CSE to better respond to government security priorities, particularly terrorism,” said Adams. “Specifically, prior to 2001, CSE was prohibited by the Criminal Code from intercepting private communications, defined as communications that originate or terminate in Canada and where the originator has an expectation of privacy.

“In practice, this meant CSE could not intercept any communication without first knowing if both ends were foreign, an impossible task in an environment where communications are routed in unpredictable ways. The Anti-Terrorism Act resolved this problem by creating a mechanism, an authorization by the minister of National Defence, which allows CSE to intercept private communications when conducting foreign intelligence or IT security activities.”

As a result of these special authorizations, which the CSE keep constantly renewed, any communication with a foreign component to it is now a possible surveillance target, whether that means a call from Toronto to the Middle East or an e-mail sent from Vancouver to Paris.

Of course, as such measures will inevitably intercept communications unrelated to terrorism or national security, there is a risk that the rights of Canadian citizens could be endangered. Whether this risk is acceptable or not, it serves to point out that securing a democratic society against terrorism is a precarious balancing act. If the agencies become too aggressive with their surveillance and intelligence gathering activities, they risk undermining the very freedoms they are trying to protect. But if they are not aggressive enough, they may not discover the terrorists and their plots until it is too late. Freedom and security both hang in the balance. In the case of those suspects arrested in Toronto, the heavy vigilance may have prevented something. However, as Campion notes, it is inevitable that no matter how tight the surveillance, it can’t be perfect.

“The threat can come from some guys who are not on the radar of the intelligence community. And that could happen. Not to fear monger, but the intelligence community has resources that are not unlimited. We’ve acknowledged publicly that at any given time we’re investigating hundreds of individuals in Canada, but I’m pretty sure we’re not finding everybody, we just can’t–we just don’t know who everybody is.

Email the writer at:

Email a letter to the editor at:


Sign up today for a FREE download of Canada’s War Stories

Free e-book

An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.