Who watches the watchers?

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The mind of The Great White Spook is more scrutable today than it was merely a week ago. But only a shade, and only thanks to the whistle-blowing of a certain, former National Security Agency (NSA) operative now on the lam in Russia.

Edward Snowdon’s data dump of super secret NSA documents on American scrivener Glenn Greenwald and his associates now implicates Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), which was, until recently, tucked safely behind an opaque veil.

In the spy world, Canada has never commanded much more authority than a handmaid in the U.S. and British intelligence establishment (or so “they” would have us believe). The news, this week, out of Brazil puts paid to that quaint conceit.

“Brazil’s flagship Fantastico investigative program on the Globo television network revealed leaked documents suggesting that Communications Security Establishment Canada has spied on computers and smartphones affiliated with Brazil’s mining and energy ministry in a bid to gain economic intelligence,” the Globe and Mail reported on Monday.

“The report. . .includes frames of a CSEC-earmarked presentation that was apparently shared with the United States and other allies in June, 2012. . .The presentation. . .rhetorically asks ‘How can I use the information available in SIGINT [signals-intelligence] data sources to learn about the target?’ before delving into specific hacking techniques.”

Former intelligence officials were quick to dismiss the report. Ray Boisvert, an ex-director general of counter-terrorism for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service told the National Post that there wasn’t much up-side in crawling through Brazil’s underwear drawer.

“Like any crime drama, you look for capability and intent,” he said. “Could CSEC do Brazil? Of course, it has significant capability to collect intelligence in the national interest. But on motive, you come up way short. If it was Iran, nobody would be surprised. But this is Brazil. I’m really short on motive.”

Perhaps, but the point is not whether Canada is poking its nose into places where its nose doesn’t belong; it’s whether it can. An even more interesting question is what prevents CSEC from doing just about anything it likes in the name of national interest and domestic security.

On June 27, the organization modified the content of its website, though it’s not clear how or where. Still, the spy agency describes its mandate, thusly: “To acquire and use information from the global information infrastructure for the purpose of providing foreign intelligence, in accordance with Government of Canada intelligence priorities;

to provide advice, guidance and services to help ensure the protection of electronic information and of information infrastructures of importance to the Government of Canada; to provide technical and operational assistance to federal law enforcement and security agencies in the performance of their lawful duties.”

As for its role, CSEC declares that it is “unique within Canada’s security and intelligence community” as it “employs code-makers and code-breakers to provide the Government of Canada with information technology security (IT Security) and foreign signals intelligence (SIGINT) services.” The latter assists “government decision-making in the fields of national security, national defence and foreign policy. These functions “relate exclusively to foreign intelligence and are directed by the Government of Canada’s intelligence priorities.”

Nothing in the public record suggests that one of these prime concerns is a policy – official or otherwise – of conducting commercial espionage against our league of friendly nations, of which Brazil is a stellar member.

The Government of Canada’s own website happily declares that this country is  “priority market. . .It is a major economic player, not just in South America, but also globally, as our 11th largest trading partner.. . Bilateral trade has increased by more than 25 per cent over the last five years, reaching $6.6 billion in 2012. . .Canadian exports to Brazil were $2.6 billion. . .In 2012, Brazil was the 7th highest source of foreign direct investment in Canada, with $15.8 billion in cumulative stocks. Brazil was the 12th largest recipient of Canadian direct investment abroad, with $9.8 billion of cumulative stock invested as of year‑end 2012. Some 500 Canadian companies are active in Brazil (over 50 in the mining sector alone).”

As CSEC’s just-retired head, John Adams, tells CBC News, it’s not a bad idea that, henceforth, the agency receives a little more parliamentary oversight than it has in the past.

After all, he says, “We have got capability that is unique to this country. No one else has it.”

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