Jul 16, 2017

Is CSIS a den of racism and Islamophobia? No, but…

Ever since Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star broke the news of a $35 million lawsuit by 5 CSIS employees I have agonised over what to write and even whether to write about this issue.  I turned down several requests for interviews from major Canadian TV networks and a few radio stations since I did not know quite what to say.  The allegations of sexism, racism and Islamophobia are deeply disturbing and serious, as is the apparent inability of the Service to do anything about them.  All in all a very worrying lapse in judgment and organisational responsibility.  And yet I now feel ready to say something about this.

I suppose the main reason behind my initial reticence was the fact that I proudly served with CSIS for 15 years and still believe that the organisation and its people serve Canada and Canadians well.  This was not the organisation I signed up for.  CSIS is rarely heralded for what it does well and only makes the headlines when something goes awry: this is one of those latter occasions.

The allegations, which have not been proven in court, are nothing short of disgusting.  A few managers appear to have gotten away with behaviour that does not belong in any workplace, let alone our national security agency.  It is often said that agencies like CSIS and the RCMP are ‘old boys’ networks’ and that this kind of stuff is tolerated, but to cite new CSIS Director David Vigneault, CSIS does not stand for this.  Former Director Richard Fadden has also made similar comments.

What struck me most is the sheer stupidity of the alleged perpetrators of hate.  You have to be particularly dense to put these feelings in a series of emails, or mention them in meetings where others are present, especially in a security service where corporate records are of primordial importance.  The sharpest pencils these were not.

For the record I know one of the plaintiffs well and do not doubt his story.  We will, however, have to allow the case to proceed through the system before judgment is passed – not that this has stopped the hoi polloi from already acting as judge, jury and executioner.  The NDP, predictably, has already called for an inquiry.

The most important question remains: is this behaviour endemic?  Is CSIS truly an Islamophobic, racist environment?  The answer is a resounding NO, at least based on my decade and a half.  The vast majority of intelligence officers, analysts, managers and others are fine Canadians who see their jobs at CSIS more as vocations than as everyday jobs.  I worked alongside some truly outstanding individuals who sacrificed much (family, free time…) to help keep Canada safe. So no, CSIS is not a cesspool of bigotry.

This of course is not an attempt to excuse what has been alleged.  If true, senior levels of management somewhere, either at HQ or in one of the organisation’s regions, either turned a blind eye to comments and sneers that should have been censured immediately or were inexplicably not made aware of them.  That they appear not to have been represents a shortcoming on the part of the agency.

Perhaps a more serious implication for all this is what it means for CSIS’ ability to do its job.  Already facing concerns over data collection, CSIS for many Canadians is a rogue service that irresponsibly ignores the law (I do not think this is true as I have written but that horse has already left that barn).  CSIS must now act carefully to undo the damage, particularly with Canada’s diverse Muslim communities without whose assistance it cannot discover and thwart terrorist plots.  The road ahead will be a tough one and I don’t envy Mr. Vigneault’s task.  What I do know of the new Director is that he is a good Canadian and I am confident he will act appropriately.

Alas, I have already read a lot of commentary that this news is typical of CSIS.  Problem: none of it was made by people who actually work there or, if it is, was made by people that worked there decades ago and is not reflective of today’s cohort.  Yes, CSIS, like other government (and I assume private sector) employers has some abysmally incompetent managers (I was blessed with amazing bosses over my career for the most part) and employees that express unacceptable beliefs. This is not an excuse: it is a reflection of reality.  When episodes of this nature occur, however, they must be dealt with at that instance and not be allowed to fester.  It does not appear that this was done.  It also seems clear that internal processes to address these issues are inadequate, forcing the five employees to seek outside legal help.  This is not good.

In the end CSIS will survive this scandal and, one hopes, come out stronger for it.  Canada and Canadians need CSIS and CSIS needs Canadians.  Wishing the organisation ill serves no useful purpose.