Nov 27, 2017

Can Canadians trust CSIS to help keep us safe?

This blog appeared in The Hill Times on November 20, 2017 (http://www.hilltimes.com/2017/11/20/can-canadians-trust-csis-help-keep-us-safe/125620)

This piece was never going to be an easy one to write.  The organisation where I proudly worked for over 15 years – CSIS – is now the subject of a $35 million lawsuit by five employees alleging racism, Islamophobia and homophobia. Canadians may very well ask whether an agency apparently ‘rife’ with these problems should be allowed to carry out national security investigations, let alone whether it can do so competently and fairly.  The National Council of Canadian Muslims for one has stated that Canadians need reassurance that the “national intelligence agency can carry out its mandate free of discrimination, racism and Islamophobia”.

Well, I can try to assure Canadians that the answer to both questions is a resounding yes, albeit with some necessary caveats.

To set the stage, I worked there as a senior strategic analyst from 2000 until my retirement from the Public Service in 2015 and did so happily, willingly and with a sense of purpose every day in the sincere belief that I  was contributing to the CSIS mandate “to collect, by investigation or otherwise, to the extent that it is strictly necessary, and analyse and retain information and intelligence respecting activities that may on reasonable grounds be suspected of constituting threats to the security of Canada and, in relation thereto, shall report to and advise the Government of Canada.”  I took my role seriously as did all my colleagues.

The main question before the public is whether these allegations are true.  While I am not privy to what has happened since 2015, during my time at CSIS I was not aware of the allegations and never personally witnessed behaviours of this nature.  If, however, the behaviours and comments alleged in the suit are true they are both unacceptable and should have been dealt with immediately after their appearance was noted.  The organisation should have taken effective action internally well before the situation reached the point of a publicly filed lawsuit.

As to the implication made by some that CSIS has a problem with bad management, it is true that it does to some extent, as do all organisations, large and small.  I worked in the civil service for two intelligence organisations for 30 years as well as for Public Safety Canada and in the private sector and I can attest that yes there are good and bad managers everywhere.  Furthermore, I too worked for some bad managers over my 15 years at CSIS but I also worked for some outstanding ones that trusted and supported me in my work.  The good ones far outnumbered the bad ones and I am confident that this is true throughout the Service.  The alleged actions of a few should not tarnish the dedication and decency of the vast majority.

I also contest the NCCM claim that these alleged racist, homophobic and Islamophobic comments affected and biased the work CSIS does.  CSIS, as noted above, investigates when it has reasonable grounds to suspect a threat is present.  Investigations are based on intelligence collected, assessed and corroborated, not on preconceived biases or prejudices.  Even if the alleged racism on the part of a few did occur I can assure Canadians that investigations  were not, and are not, driven by these beliefs.

I do think that there is work to be done in internal conflict management at CSIS.  These shortcomings should not be blown out of proportion, however: they remain a serious but not endemic problem, at least in my experience.  Nevertheless, bad managers should be sidelined and unacceptable behaviours must be punished.

CSIS fulfills an important job in this country and Canadians are alive thanks to the work it does.  No, it is not a perfect agency and I fear that this lawsuit will affect how it is perceived in some quarters.  It remains, however, a capable organisation staffed by some of the best and brightest we have in Canada.  I sincerely hope the agency deals with this crisis, makes the necessary adjustments, and moves confidently forward.