Director’s Letter

Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness
269 Laurier Avenue West, 19th Floor
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0P8


Dear Minister:

In recognition of your recent appointment, please accept my congratulations. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) is dedicated to protecting Canada and Canadians, and I wish to highlight the Service’s ongoing commitment to supporting you in the exercise of your duties. To that end, I am writing to provide you with a high level overview of the threat environment as well as other significant considerations relevant to the Service. I also look forward to providing you with a detailed classified briefing regarding the range and complexity of national security threats facing Canada.

Since its establishment in 1984, CSIS has been charged with investigating, analyzing and advising the Government on threats to Canada’s national security. As Minister, you provide direction to the Service and have specific responsibilities for authorizations outlined in the CSIS Act. This includes your approval of warrant applications to the Federal Court, approval of arrangements with domestic and foreign partners, and consent for CSIS to undertake foreign intelligence collection pursuant to a request from the Minister of Foreign Affairs or National Defence.

As a key member of Canada’s security and intelligence community, CSIS’ operational activities are guided by the Intelligence Priorities set by Cabinet which are refined by your specific direction to the Service. Though the broad threats we are mandated to investigate – espionage, foreign-influenced activities, terrorism and subversion – remain the same, threat actors have changed dramatically as has the context in which we operate.

The threat environment today is increasingly complex, diverse and global. Terrorism remains the top threat to public safety and national security, but its scope now ranges from groups linked to Daesh and Al Qaeda to groups and individuals looking to advocate or support a range of politically, racially and ideologically motivated causes through acts of violence. A rise in hate and intolerance in Canada and other western democracies can fuel such violence. In parallel, Canadian extremist travellers, including those who seek to return from abroad, continue to pose a range of national security concerns for Canada.

As an advanced economy and an open and free democracy, Canada has always been targeted by hostile states seeking to acquire information, intelligence and influence to advance their own interests. Hostile activities by state actors pose strategic, long-term threats to Canada’s interests and include activities that are detrimental to Canada’s economic, industrial, military and technological advantage. States conduct espionage that jeopardizes Canada’s knowledge-based economy, future prosperity, and national security. Foreign interference has a corrosive effect on our democratic processes and institutions. State actors also target the fabric of Canada’s multicultural society, seeking to influence communities including through threats.

The range of national security threats facing Canada has been exacerbated by globalization and the use of the Internet and social media platforms. The availability of cheaper and more accessible cyber tools enables hostile actors to undertake cyber operations that are difficult to attribute. The massive volume and variety of digital communications, operational security measures designed to defeat detection, and other technological advancements challenge the Service’s ability to collect intelligence.

Threats to Canada’s security are not bound by geography; technology and ease of travel enable threat actors to operate globally and Canada has interests around the world. As a result, CSIS works closely with both domestic and international partners. In addition to maintaining a footprint across Canada, CSIS has a presence at key locations abroad. CSIS officers stationed abroad collect and, when required, share information related to threats to Canada, its interests and its allies with international partners. Cooperation with foreign agencies, including CSIS’ traditional Five Eyes partners, provides CSIS access to timely information on threats with a Canadian nexus and allows the Service and, in turn, the Government of Canada access to information which might otherwise not be available.

Contrary to many hostile actors, CSIS operates in a democracy governed by the rule of law. In carrying out our work, it is essential that CSIS protects the rights of Canadians. For the Service, this entails compliance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadian law, ministerial direction, and CSIS policies and procedures. Specific CSIS activities are also subject to judicial authorization. This includes the requirement to apply to the Federal Court for warrants to use more intrusive collection techniques and for certain threat reduction measures. These applications are subject to your prior approval.

In our engagement with the Court, the Service recognizes the importance of full, frank, and fair disclosure. The Service continues to take steps to demonstrate our commitment to candour. This has included regular technical briefings to the Court, the proactive sharing of information on compliance matters and the careful implementation of the Protocol on Duty of Candour with the Department of Justice. We recognize that candour with the Federal Court is of paramount importance and that there is still more work to be done to ensure we fully meet our obligations.

In order to ensure accountability to yourself and Canadians, CSIS directly engages with Public Safety Canada in a variety of ways. For instance, a Ministerial Direction for Accountability issued in September 2019 established clear obligations to notify you and your Deputy Minister of certain matters and to ensure you are notified prior to conducting high risk operational activities. The Service is actively working with your officials to implement this direction, as we recognize its importance in ensuring that Canadians have confidence that the Service is accountable to Parliament and the public. Internally, CSIS has also established an operational compliance framework, and is making deep investments in technology and governance to weave compliance into the fabric of our organization’s culture. A robust compliance framework will help CSIS assure the Federal Court, the Government of Canada and Canadians that our compliance with the laws of Canada is of paramount importance.

Maintaining and strengthening public confidence is a key objective of the Service. By engaging and informing Canadians about the threats we are facing, and how we do our work, we help to make Canadians our partners in protecting against these threats. It is an important, mutually reinforcing dialogue. Canadians have clearly indicated that they expect the security and intelligence community to be more transparent. While recognizing that secrecy is essential to CSIS’ work, the Service is committed to increasing public awareness in part through engagement with communities and stakeholders across Canada. The Service’s Public Report is one of our primary tools through which we share information about our priorities and activities with Parliament, stakeholders, media and the general public.

Just as the threat environment continues to evolve, the operational landscape in which CSIS operates has also shifted. Changes in the threat, operational, technological and legal environment have created challenges for a statute drafted more than three decades ago. In 2015, the first amendments to modernize the CSIS Act since the creation of the Service confirmed certain authorities and increased essential identity protections for CSIS human sources and employees. With the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015, further amendments provided the Service with the mandate to undertake measures to reduce threats to the security of Canada.

The recent entry into force in 2019 of the National Security Act, 2017 also brought about significant changes to the CSIS Act, providing clear authority for longstanding collection activities and 21st century investigative techniques that enable CSIS to effectively carry out its duties and functions in a challenging operational environment. This included creating a limited justification for CSIS to engage in activities that would otherwise be illegal under Canadian law, to ensure that we can effectively fulfill our mandate to collect intelligence in the face of complex threats. These amendments also provided CSIS a clear authority to collect, retain and use datasets to ensure CSIS can conduct data analytics in support of its duties and functions. This enables the Service to make connections and identify trends that are otherwise unidentifiable through traditional methods of investigation.

Robust safeguards underpinning all of these changes were legislated to ensure Canadians’ rights and freedoms, including privacy, are protected. These protections include enhanced requirements for ministerial accountability, requiring – at least once a year – your determination of classes of Canadian datasets that the Service is authorized to collect; your determination of the classes of acts or omissions that would otherwise constitute offences; and your designation of employees that may be justified in committing or directing another person to commit such acts or omissions, if deemed reasonable.

The Service took significant steps to ensure full compliance upon entry into force of this new legislation, with a robust governance framework and extensive training. The Service has engaged the newly created review and oversight bodies, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency and the Intelligence Commissioner, to ensure our requirements related to these entities are met.

The Service has also been engaged with the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians to support its reviews. We place priority on maintaining an effective and constructive working relationship with national security review and oversight bodies, recognizing the value they contribute to the ongoing improvement of our work.

Notwithstanding recent legislative amendments, additional work remains to ensure that the Service has the authorities and tools it needs to meet the growing expectations of the Government and Canadians. CSIS’ expertise is sought by new stakeholders and to support a broader range of Government programs and priorities. Technological advances have created opportunities for intelligence collection, but also create new challenges for an aging statute. Information is increasingly stored outside of Canada, or is in an encrypted format that cannot be readily used. Jurisprudence, including the evolving privacy landscape, has also impacted CSIS’ operations. Together, these developments pose challenges for an Act crafted 35 years ago, limiting CSIS’ ability to discharge its mandate.

Ensuring CSIS can advise its partners and inform decision-making without disclosing its sensitive tradecraft, sources and methods also remains a challenge. CSIS’ intelligence may inform various decisions taken by Government of Canada partners and therefore become subject to disclosure in administrative, civil or criminal proceedings. Disclosure of sensitive information could be injurious to national security and damage foreign partnerships. CSIS and the RCMP have proactively undertaken initiatives with the objective of enhancing operational collaboration, while minimizing the disclosure of sensitive information. In parallel, CSIS has been working with the Department of Justice and Public Safety Canada to develop policy and legislative options to address the intelligence to evidence dilemma. I look forward to briefing you in greater detail on the results of these initiatives.

Demands of CSIS and the world in which it operates have changed, and the time is right for a dialogue about the appropriate roles of Canada’s intelligence agency in 2020 and beyond. Above all, CSIS requires transparent authorities that enable it to maintain excellence, ensure relevance and safeguard the confidence of Canadians in the fulfilment of our mission of protecting Canada and Canadians.

CSIS is also undergoing a period of transformative change internally, across a variety of strategic priorities. CSIS is seeking to increase the efficiency of our operations by optimizing the intelligence cycle. These efforts will streamline and improve the direction, planning, reporting, analysis, processing and dissemination of our intelligence to ensure the right intelligence gets to the right people at the right time. The world today is digital and in order to meet our mandate, now and into the future, CSIS must modernize its approach to an increasingly data-dominated landscape. To this end, we recently launched our CSIS Data Strategy (2019-24) focussed on implementing a sound data strategy and building a data literate workforce. At its core, this Data Strategy places a clear emphasis on the value of CSIS’ employees and equipping our people with the skills and data literacy to take full advantage of available technologies and capabilities.

Our emphasis on our employees is also reflected in other transformative corporate efforts, underpinned by a focus on employee wellness and health to ensure we are an inclusive, diverse, and respectful workplace with a healthy workforce. I truly believe this is essential for us to fulfill our mandate and maintain the standard of excellence that Canadians expect and we expect of ourselves as an organization. As a result, CSIS recently launched an overarching People Strategy that sets out principles and desired outcomes to modernize our workplace. The strategy aims to improve our people management culture, enhance talent management and employee development, and ensure a healthy, safe, and respectful workplace. Part of our People Strategy is to build diversity and inclusion at all levels. To work effectively, CSIS must understand and relate to the experiences of the many communities and cultures that make up Canada. Diversity is not only part of our culture – it is a core business strategy that helps us achieve our objectives. Going forward, the People Strategy will lay a strong foundation as we strive to be an excellent, relevant, and confident organization.

CSIS has taken steps to examine its operational activities through this same lens, drawing from Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) to make better evidence-based decisions, and thus achieve better results for its stakeholders, employees and all Canadians. This includes the delivery of unconscious bias recognition training to all new employees, supervisors and interviewers as well as the establishment of a GBA+ network across the Service to ensure that every branch and region has a GBA+ resource, all of which is coordinated by a nominated CSIS GBA+ Champion.

The Service remains committed to fulfilling its mission to protect Canada and Canadians. I would like to invite you to visit the Service’s National Headquarters, at a time of your convenience, to allow us to brief you further in a classified setting on CSIS’ operational priorities, investigations, tools and techniques, and answer any questions you may have. We look forward to a most productive relationship with you and your staff.



David Vigneault


cc. Monik Beauregard, Acting Deputy Minister of Public Safety

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