Summary of the Special Meeting of the National Security Transparency Advisory Group (NS-TAG) December 14, 2020
Held via Videoconference
- Michèle Audette
- William Baker
- Khadija Cajee
- Mary Francoli
- Harpreet Jhinjar
- Thomas Juneau (co-chair)
- Justin Mohammed
- Bessma Momani
- Dominic Rochon (co-chair)
- Jeffrey Roy
- Myles Kirvan
- Discussion with the Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service
Invited Guests and Speakers:
- David Vigneault, Director, Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
- Tricia Geddes, Deputy Director, Policy and Strategic Partnerships, Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
This virtual special meeting of the NS-TAG took place on December 14, 2020 and welcomed David Vigneault, Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Tricia Geddes, Deputy Director of Policy and Strategic Partnerships at CSIS.
Director Vigneault and Deputy Director Geddes’ remarks and responses to questions covered a number of topics including: community engagement, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, new terminology for violent extremism, datasets, and review and accountability.
Introductory Remarks by Director Vigneault and Deputy Director Geddes
The Director explained that the confidence of Canadians in CSIS’ national security efforts is fundamental to the organization’s legitimacy, operational effectiveness and institutional credibility. He reiterated the commitment CSIS has made to being more transparent about the threats Canada is facing, and how CSIS conducts its work, including by continuing to directly engage communities.
While acknowledging that CSIS has faced scrutiny from the Federal Court, particularly regarding its duty of candour, he stated that the organization is actively working and cooperating closely with its review bodies to respond to these concerns and build a stronger culture of compliance.
He advised that CSIS is also undergoing a period of internal transformation which is underpinned by an emphasis on CSIS employees, as they are the organization’s most valuable resource. Director Vigneault stated that ensuring CSIS is an inclusive, diverse and respectful workplace is essential in order for CSIS to fulfill its mandate and to maintain the standard of excellence that Canadians expect of their intelligence service.
Deputy Director Geddes highlighted CSIS’ efforts for transparent communication with Canadians through the annual CSIS Public Report, changes in terminology around violent extremism, and through academic and stakeholder outreach. She reiterated that CSIS is working to better understand what Canadians want to know more about when it comes to national security issues, including information about national security institutions themselves.
Deputy Director Geddes highlighted that CSIS is engaging with various communities through traditional methods such as the Cross-Cultural Round Table on National Security, but she also noted how CSIS would like to go further and augment engagement with marginalized communities, and anyone who wants to be heard.
She noted that it is critical for CSIS to have more diverse voices from across the spectrum and from across the country, that are able to contribute to public discussions on national security and transparency.
Both Special Guests spoke to how, given the nature of security and intelligence agencies, there are inherent challenges related to transparency however, CSIS is making strides to be better.
Director Vigneault concluded by stating that “today’s engagement for us is so important because we want to hear from you. You know, how what we’re trying to do is perceived, how, based on your advice and your thoughts, we can do better because at the end of the day, when a bomb goes off, when communities are being manipulated and harassed by foreign powers, when a democratic process is being undermined by foreign powers, we all lose at that. And that’s why we all need to have an intelligence service that is effective, accountable, and that represents the values of Canadians. And hopefully, through the work you’re doing, and our engagement with you, we’ll be able to get to a better place.”
Key Takeaways of the Questions and Answers Session
- The Director shared how CSIS, unlike some other foreign intelligence agencies who have limited or no accountability, or just accountability on paper, is accountable to almost twenty organizations, inside and outside the Government. He shared that the number of organizations to which CSIS is accountable is vastly different than some other foreign intelligence agencies.
- Director Vigneault emphasized that the people of CSIS are patriots, they are Canadians, and they want to keep Canada safe and more prosperous, but they also want to do it in a way that reflects Canada’s values, and adheres to Canadian laws.
- While sharing that CSIS launched a new strategic plan in 2017 with three specific pillars: relevance, excellence and confidence, Director Vigneault explained that CSIS had to prove its relevance as an intelligence organization within an evolving threat environment, focus on its excellence by having employees find ways to succeed with limited resources and a complex threat environment, and ensure that CSIS has the confidence of Canadians; confidence of CSIS employees in the organization, confidence of the different actors in civil society, including the court, parliament, and civil liberties organizations.
- The Special Guests reiterated how CSIS is reaching out to non-traditional stakeholders and that is actively trying to push itself out of its comfort zone to reach out to various organizations to engage in dialogue that is critical for national security.
- It was acknowledged that there have been a number of criticisms against CSIS and other organizations about how terrorist organizations and events are described. The Director explained that CSIS was made aware that people, especially from Muslim communities, were quite upset and angry when an act of violence, perpetrated by a Muslim person, would be called terrorism, but when a similar act was perpetrated by a Caucasian person, it would be called a criminal or violent act. The Director described how CSIS reflected on these issues and came up with different nomenclature to address the issue.
- Both Guests shared how CSIS has been a leader inside the national security community, in Canada and around the world, in changing the way threats of terrorism and violent extremism are communicated. They highlighted how CSIS launched the new violent extremism terminology to try to shift away from defining this threat by specific religious affiliation or by where someone sits on the political spectrum, in order to avoid using language that people had found quite distressing.
- They highlighted how ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE) relates to a variety of actors including Neo-Nazi white supremacists, ethno-nationalists, people who espouse violence against women like so-called involuntary celibates including the individual who killed 10 people in Toronto two years ago, and how the Government of Canada was the second in the world to list white supremacist groups as terrorist organizations two years ago.
- Director Vigneault stated that he hopes Canadians will see that violent extremism comes from many different motivations and is not specific to any single community, race, or religion. He emphasized that CSIS has been leading work, both investigative work and methodological work, to try to destigmatize the way violent extremism is viewed.
- Deputy Director Geddes noted that there is also some resentment about the way in which CSIS previously referred to specific religiously motivated violence extremists. She explained that CSIS reflected on this and made a very concrete decision to move away from language that defined threats, for example, as Sunni Islamic extremism. While noting that the term “religiously motivated violent extremism” is not perfect, she explained that this new terminology is consistent with what is written in the CSIS Act. She also highlighted how CSIS welcomes input from groups like the NS-TAG if CSIS is not getting things like terminology quite right.
- When questioned specifically about Muslim communities’ loss of trust with CSIS, Director Vigneault explained that there are often misconceptions about intelligence agencies investigating people who are not threats, and that misunderstandings exist on both sides. He highlighted how CSIS has publicly released the number of targets that it has in its inventory, and noted that when you look at the number, for the size of the organization, it is clear that CSIS has no time to chase threats that don’t exist, because there are too many threats that do exist that must be prioritized.
- When further asked about the concerns of some Canadian Muslims regarding CSIS going to their place of work or study and allegedly harassing them, the Director explained that CSIS has very strict procedures in place when conducting investigative work at a Canadian fundamental institution, such as a university. He also asked for insight on how CSIS can better work with communities to address that problem. He described how it is important for CSIS to have the trust of Canadians, as it is fundamental to operational effectiveness. He said that the only way for CSIS to be accountable is to address the issue head on, and that is why CSIS is working with organizations to understand these incidents and understand why certain individuals and communities may not trust the way CSIS works.
- When asked about Islamophobia and systemic racism at CSIS the Director stated that he agreed with members of NS-TAG, that CSIS’ culture needs to evolve. He stated “I’ve said publicly and I’ve said privately to our employees that yes systemic racism does exist here, and yes there is a level of harassment and fear of reprisal within the organization” and that CSIS has launched a workplace assessment to address these issues.
- Director Vigneault commented on how the workplace assessment is a very concrete action plan that employees receive regular reporting on, and are engaged in. He noted that if you want to change a culture, you need to directly engage employees and that is why CSIS took a year and a half to rebuild its employee Code of Conduct. He explained that it took so long because they had so many focus groups with employees.
- The Director emphasized that CSIS’s goal with the workplace assessment was to create an environment where people could knock on any door in the workplace to say “there’s something not right here, or this person’s behavior is unacceptable, or what happened to me on this issue, I cannot accept that” in order to create an environment where people feel safe and confident in reporting these incidents, and know that their issues will be heard and actioned.
- When asked about key challenges that CSIS is facing to deal with data, and how CSIS intends to be more transparent about data capabilities going forward, the Director explained that in 2020, it is impossible to be able to do analysis and intelligence work without data. He emphasized how the power of data is phenomenal, and explained how on one end, as it had been reported in the news, other intelligence services have used open-source information, tracking some cell phones, or used travel data in order to piece together the secret operations of certain hostile state actors, and were able to do so because of data. Conversely, he explained, those hostile state actors are harvesting extremely large quantities of data, and feeding their artificial intelligence algorithms to be able to detect patterns, or for example, detect who is associating with certain community groups that oppose that state’s views, who that person’s family members are, who are people the state actor can put pressure on, etc. The Director warned that these are the negative uses of big data that CSIS is concerned about. That’s why, he stated, CSIS is talking to Canadians, Government, and various organizations to say “you need to protect your data because it is what can be weaponized by a number of foreign actors with different perspectives and agendas.”
- Deputy Director Geddes pointed out how the Government put forth a strong effort to modernize CSIS’ authorities by introducing and passing new legislation in Bill C-59. She explained that even though the legislation was drafted relatively quickly and came into force relatively recently, CSIS continues to face challenges in order to bring in datasets under the new framework. She highlighted how this topic is very complex because while CSIS needs data in order to do its job, the privacy of Canadians must also be protected.
- When asked about community engagement at the grassroots level, Director Vigneault shared that CSIS’ outreach and engagement happens in various forms. He explained that CSIS conducts outreach to raise awareness about the organization and build trust with communities that may have a lack of understanding of what CSIS does, and that CSIS also conducts operational outreach and engagement. He stated that “fundamentally, outreach and engagement is conducted to protect Canadians against terrorism, espionage, sabotage, proliferation. In order for us to protect people we need to understand and hear from people.”
- When questioned about CSIS’ duty of candour and the notion of having external legal counsel provide opinions to the Service, Deputy Director Geddes explained that CSIS has had conversations with counterparts in the US about transparency initiatives, and found that the US had a forward leaning attitude about posting legal opinions. She commented how there’s complexity there, but that more information could potentially be provided on how the CSIS Act is broadly being interpreted. She emphasized that specific legal advice, including solicitor client privileged information, would remain protected.
- Deputy Director Geddes also pointed out that the organization is taking concrete measures to implement a rigorous training regimen to help employees understand their individual responsibilities regarding the duty of candour, starting from the very beginning of an issue all the way up to the person who steps into the court room.
- Director Vigneault and Deputy Director Geddes requested that NS-TAG hold them to account for what they said at the meeting, challenge them, and work with them to ensure that they’re not just saying what they think are the right things to say, but that the organization and as leaders within the organization, that they are held accountable.
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