One Year Through: Taking Stock of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)'s Program of Outreach to Experts

Posted on : Tuesday 09 February 2010

By Louise M. Doyon
Director General, Academic Outreach
Canadian Security Intelligence Service

Presented at the International Studies Association Convention, New Orleans, February 2010.

There is a small but growing body of literature that argues in favour of the need to bring non-governmental expertise into the intelligence process, with some commentators referring to this source of knowledge as “the missing dimension of intelligence.” Beginning in the aftermaths of 9/11 and the Iraq war, they have contended that outside experts from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds can assist the intelligence community in better understanding the context underpinning unprecedented challenges posed by the age of transnational threats whether it be from terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or non-traditional threats taking hold in a globalized world. This public debate has taken place mainly in the US and came to a resolution in that country when in July 2008, the Director of National Intelligence issued a directive calling for the Intelligence community (IC) to take the necessary steps to leverage analytical expertise as an integral part of the intelligence collection processFootnote 1. Discussion has now shifted mainly to an examination of the tools which need to be developed to best meet community needs while remaining respectful of the policies and procedures governing the US ICFootnote 2.

In light of the scale of the US intelligence system and the tremendous resources at its disposal, are the practices put forward by the US IC applicable to different contexts? Can a program of non-governmental expert engagement assist in meeting essential requirements if conducted on a more modest scale by smaller organisations? The experience of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is telling in that regard and can make a meaningful contribution to the discussion. On the basis of the activities carried out over the last year, we believe that this program is an invaluable tool to better map the threat environment by forcing us to think more holistically about the series of challenges facing societies and their governments in an inter-connected world and better advise decision makers on their security implications for Canada.

Abandoning a Passive OSINT Strategy

Change has become a mantra for CSIS (as for other intelligence services), as we seek to respond to a threat landscape where challenges are increasing in number, complexity and diversity and we must adapt to a more complex set of working relationships both domestically and internationally. The Canadian government’s expectations have risen, as the security environment has become more fluid. The country’s national security strategy has been redefined, its scope broadened and responsibility for its implementation has been shared among a broad number of departments and agencies. The lines between security and foreign intelligence have also become blurred. In addition, CSIS is confronted with important organisational challenges: managing the significant growth of the Service’s workforce and the consequences of a demographic shift as the baby boomer generation retires and takes critical expertise with it.

These and other challengesFootnote 3 have forced us to rethink and re-align operational and corporate practices across the board. There has also been a genuine effort to alter the Service’s culture so that flexibility and adaptability become key values. While most of these changes cannot be obvious to the outside observer, there is a readiness to experiment with new formulas. And this openness to considering new ways of doing things has helped set the stage for the successful launch of the Service’s outreach efforts to non-governmental experts.

Like many of its counterparts, CSIS has made great strides in incorporating open source information into its intelligence products since the beginning of the decade. However, this strategy has been an essentially passive one. We have mined a wide variety of electronic and other mediums for information, but this has also produced an information glut. For a variety of reasons including cultural and procedural barriers, some inherited from the Cold War, we had stopped short of drawing into a dialogue outside experts who could help us make greater sense of this mountain of data and think more creatively about today’s riddles and tomorrow’s puzzles.

Beginning in 2006, the Service’s analytical branch occasionally sought out experts in academia, think-tanks and NGOs as a tool to strengthen our analytical capacity and provide the missing dimension to classified information. A two-day seminar on the future of Russia held in May 2008 was particularly revealing in that respectFootnote 4. However, competing priorities and the lack of resources that could be dedicated to this task made it impossible to push further the experiment, without creating a separate responsibility centre dedicated exclusively to this function.

Guidelines for a Dialogue

The Service’s Academic Outreach Office was created in September 2008 with the full backing of CSIS’ Director. The Office started out initially as a two-person team, chosen on the basis of their knowledge of the Service, the Canadian IC and the academic/think-tank community in Canada and abroadFootnote 5. The team quickly grew to four by the winter of 2009. It was also allocated sufficient financial resources with which to experiment different outreach approaches and formats. From the outset, the purposes of the program were clearly communicated to all employees, including new recruits who were sensitised to its benefits as part of the standard training they receive when joining the Service.

Our first objective in developing our action plan was to quickly establish a benchmark with regards to the state of knowledge on key factors shaping priority threats to Canadian security. Addressing these issues was essential to establish the program’s credibility with both collectors and analysts struggling to meet pressing requirements on an increasing number of fronts. We also took care to plan for a set of activities designed to explore broader and longer term issues necessary for a better understanding of global trends and emerging security concerns to better equip the organisation’s capacity for long-term planning.

To address these different sets of questions, we were committed to develop a multi-disciplinary, cross-cultural and international network of experts upon whom we could call to take part in Service-sponsored activities. We have sought out leading experts in Canada and abroad who can bring to the table excellent analytical skills and knowledge gained through their unique access to sources of information which are often unavailable to intelligence services. We also make a point of identifying new thinkers who can look at rapidly changing situations with a set of fresh eyes. Likewise, we have been looking to expand the dialogue beyond academia, and have had success in engaging think-tank researchers and journalists and are opening the door to broader exchanges with business and NGOs, mindful that a plurality of perspectives make for a more complete and useful picture for government.

As pointed out by others before us, subject-matter experts from a variety of disciplines offer invaluable insights into non-traditional issues making their way onto the security agenda as well as helping to decipher changing power relationships that will govern the increasingly complex world around us. Climate change is no longer an esoteric topic to be considered only by scientists now that the Arctic’s melting ice cap is generating competing national claims to newly accessible sources of fuel and minerals. It could, in other parts of the world, trigger new extremist threats in response to population displacement generated by wide-scale drought or flooding. The medium and long term consequences of the current economic downturn on fragile states trying to productively integrate a young population, the role of sovereign wealth funds and the expanded opportunities for transnational organised crime also raise a number of security considerations.

Topical experts can also provide a more textured background against which to grasp the implications of new threats such as piracy and the growing incidence of kidnapping in areas of the world which have not presented a security challenge until now. Outreach to these experts can become part of a threat mitigation strategy allowing strained analytical resources to quickly come up to speed on threats that are more episodic in nature.

An equally essential objective of the program has been to challenge cultural biases and analytical hypotheses on questions where the Service has long-recognised experience, to further refine our assessment capacity and improve the quality of our advice to government on longstanding threats. Opening the channels of communication to experts with a variety of perspectives, some of which offer alternative interpretations to Service views, is essential to ensure that all relevant developments are factored into our assessments, including those which we may be tempted to discard because they do not fit our world view.

The creation of our program coincided with the organisation’s drive to increase further collection efficiency and minimise the use of covert means to fill only those critical knowledge gaps which cannot be filled through other means. As a part of this strategy, the Service had decided to position its assessment branch at the centre of the intelligence process to guide collection efforts. Our outreach efforts are seen as a natural complement to this re-alignment. Our challenge is to help identify and make available that contextual knowledge needed to ensure that the right questions are asked in the day-to-day collection and assist in assessing the value of the information collected.

We also believed that academic outreach could be an important community-building tool that could support initiatives led by different components of the Canadian IC to foster a genuine dialogue between analysts and the production of more integrated assessments. From the very outset, we framed several of our planned activities more broadly to include issues of more general interest and provide a forum to which representatives of other government departments could contribute and from which all could benefit.

Finally, we were aware that the long-term success of this program was contingent upon ensuring that the relationship with outside experts involves a genuine exchange of insights, while guarding those relatively narrow areas that must remain protected. It was decided early on that we would share openly the results of our exchanges on more strategic issues, but protect the identity of those experts who desire to maintain confidentiality. In this way, we sought to demonstrate the depth of our commitment to learning and hopefully counter the concerns or pre-conceived ideas in some quarters. We also saw these events as an opportunity to foster a better understanding of government priorities and concerns among experts and contribute to an informed public debate.Footnote 6

Creating an Environment of Continuous Learning

Conferences, seminars, workshops and lunchtime presentations have been the main tools we have relied upon to bridge the knowledge gap and tap into the experts’ ability to reflect upon the longer term, an exercise which intelligence analysts are too often taken away from to meet tactical requirements.

The weekly lunchtime presentation series, which brings in speakers to address the general Service population and analysts from other government departments, has gained a wide audience. It has proven to be a flexible tool to address fast-breaking developments or introduce new trends for consideration. Other presentations serve to provide a different prism through which to view more traditional issues or consider societal developments which have an impact on the Service’s general operational environment. The presentations resonate particularly with young employees performing core functions. Well educated and well travelled, they are eager learners who are curious about world developments, the complexities of their particular account area and events that have shaped the course of the profession they have recently joined. Follow-up discussions with those immediately concerned by the issue at hand allow for a more in-depth exchange. In a number of instances, these exchanges have triggered the expert’s interest in security considerations and led to academic research which can serve to enrich the public debate.

It is the two-day conferences, held twice or three times a year, however, that have established the program’s brand both inside and outside the Service. Significant energies have been invested into creating this forum so that it can attract leading experts for an in-depth discussion of strategic issues that are conditioning the global security environment. Care is taken to ensure that a variety of national perspectives are included and are not limited to those of our traditional allies.

During the eighteen months of existence of the outreach program, four conferences have been held. They have studied:

  • the prospects for Pakistan’s security;
  • the future of Iran as a regional power;
  • China and its new place in the world; and
  • the political and security implications of the economic recession as well as the changing role of the state that it has triggered.

Feedback has been very positive from all participants. Experts have appreciated the opportunity to come together with other leaders in their field from inside and outside government for a genuine exchange. One confided, half-jokingly, that it certainly was not the weather that had attracted him to Ottawa in the middle of January!

The conferences have made a positive contribution to community building and helped to position the Service as a credible interlocutor on questions that go beyond the traditional confines of security. Another benefit has been the decision by some IC members to organise outreach activities to tackle specific issues raised during the Service-sponsored events and make them available to relevant partners. This makes us part of an increasingly cohesive IC and highlights the complementarity of its component parts.

As mentioned earlier, these events are a critical tool assisting us in further honing our analytical skills. They also contribute to a more efficient process of intelligence collection. They are an essential learning tool allowing for investigators who are new to the file area to quickly come up to speed, a not inconsiderable contribution in a time of new hiring and frequent shift in responsibilities in response to a fluid threat environment. They are an equally important support to more experienced employees who take the opportunity to test their interpretations and generate new avenues of enquiry. They also minimise the use of covert collection to fill those critical knowledge gaps which cannot be filled through other means.

The Office has worked closely with the Service’s technical services and the Information Centre to facilitate the sharing in-house of information from presentations, conferences and seminars (set up to address more operationally-focussed needs and for Service personnel only). Podcasts and CDs of presentations are available to employees both in headquarters and in the regions. Key findings of conferences are made available on the internal network and we are looking at the creative use of new technologies to further participation within the organisation.

Equal care has been taken to share key findings of conferences with a wider public. They are posted on the Service’s web-site ( and disseminated to contacts within and outside government. We hope that these documents can help generate further interest in the study of security issues in Canadian universities and complement some of our other efforts.

In that regard, it should be noted that we welcome the initiatives taken by the Canadian Association for Intelligence and Security Studies (CASIS) to promote interest in this field and a platform where government and academia can come together to discuss security-related studies.Footnote 7

We are also committed to the continued support of the international network-building efforts of the Global Futures Forum (GFF). Created in 2005 under the leadership of the US, and bringing together other (mainly Western) intelligence communities interested and a broad network of non-governmental experts, the GFF fosters the collaborative development of insight and foresight. This network provided an important stepping stone in helping the AO Office quickly put together an initial inventory of international experts.

The Way Forward

In relatively short order, the outreach program has become an integral part of the Service’s tools in the production of intelligence that will support informed government decision-making. The consolidation of the program does bring with it, however, another set of challenges.

The most significant challenge is the need to maintain a balance between meeting immediate needs and exploring looming security issues. Outreach is being called on more and more to support the Service’s effort to provide high quality basic training to its young investigators and analysts. It must also act as a catalyst, bringing together experts from within and outside government to create new knowledge on priority issues driving the current security agenda, in the short to medium term. Neither can it lose sight of the need to gain insights into anticipated and unexpected emerging issues. In an environment of limited resources, developing new and expanding existing partnerships with other government stakeholders, intelligence counterparts and NGOs will be key to juggling these competing requirements.

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