Without a foreign spy service, Canada relies on U.S. intelligence network to warn of threats.
Canadian intelligence agencies could end up feeling the pain of the bruising political fight unfolding in Washington over leaks and the alleged ties of some in the Trump administration to Russia, experts warned on Thursday.
Stung by claims it is deliberately leaking damaging information to undermine the new president, the U.S. intelligence community could become more reluctant to share both its raw data and assessments of global threats with long-standing partners.
“I’ve gone to all of the folks in charge of the various agencies and where I’ve actually called the Justice Department to look into the leaks,” Trump said in an hour-long news conference where he railed at the U.S. media. “Those are criminal leaks. I think you’ll see it stopping because now we have our people in.”
Trump’s attack on the U.S. intelligence community is unheard-of and could very well send American officials running for cover — something that would be a disaster for Canadian security and political leadership, says Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa professor and one of the country’s foremost experts on intelligence.
‘People in Washington are starting to call this an intelligence war and that is bad news for Canada’– Wesley Ward, University of Ottawa
“People in Washington are starting to call this an intelligence war and that is bad news for Canada,” Wark said. “I think something unprecedented is going on in Washington. It is more than just spectacle.”
There were reports in the New York Times on Thursday claiming Trump was prepared to appoint an outsider to review Washington’s intelligence agencies.
Separately, the Wall Street Journal reported that senior intelligence officials were refusing to share some information with the White House out of fear it would end up informing Moscow.
Other nations in the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing community, notably the British, have reportedly expressed reservations about letting the U.S. know too much about its activities and sources in Russia.
The resignation earlier this week of national security adviser Michael Flynn over his pre-inaugration conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. have only served to sharpen the concerns.
While contacts at the bureaucratic level are strong, Wark says that at the senior level Canadians “don’t know who we can talk to in Washington or who we can trust.”
Relying on U.S. intelligence
Unlike the U.S. and Britain, Canada has no established foreign intelligence service and is a “net importer” of intelligence. While the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) investigates security threats at home, it doesn’t do intelligence monitoring abroad.
“We are completely dependent on U.S. intelligence,” said a defence official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The information they provide is absolutely essential” for Canada’s national security.
It was the FBI who tipped off Canadian law enforcement to navy spy former sub-lieutenant Jeffrey Delisle, who later pleaded guilty to sharing secrets with the Russians.
Last summer, the FBI also warned of the imminent attack planned by would-be ISIS supporter Aaron Driver, who was shot and killed by an RCMP tactical team in Strathroy, Ont.
Wark doesn’t believe the U.S. would withhold intelligence about imminent security threats, but there could be a significant disconnect on crucial information and insight over Russia.
Five eyes meeting coming up
What the U.S. knows about Moscow’s hacking of the presidential election is paramount to Canadian security services, particularly in light of the Liberal government’s planned review of electoral security in this country.
Wark says a partial or even full blackout of information could force the Liberal government to reassess the need for a foreign intelligence presence.
Canada’s lack of capacity for foreign intelligence-gathering “has rested on the comfortable assumption that we can always rely on our allies, particularly the United States, for a lot of intelligence that we didn’t have to invest resources and money to collect it ourselves,” he said.
“A country like Canada with global interests — not a global super power but lots of global interest, particularly in the trade side — just has to have it’s own good sovereign intelligence capability, and we don’t have that yet.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, in Calgary on Thursday, would not comment directly on all of the turmoil in the U.S., but insisted that the business of intelligence sharing between the two countries is carrying on.
“There is nothing on the horizon at this moment that would raise any alarm bells,” he said.
“Obviously Canadians expect us to be vigilant. The Five Eyes ministers, both justice and public safety, meet on a very regular basis. There will be a meeting of the Five Eyes later this year, and if there is any change in the procedure or the level of concern, that’s the time that would be identified. But there’s nothing at the moment that would set off an alarm bell.”