Canada's information battleground strategy requires enhanced oversight, inter-agency cooperation

  • National Newswatch

In mid-February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper who serves as principal advisor to President Obama on issues related to national security, publicly admitted for the first time (as reported in the Daily Beast) that the US should have told the American people -- and their elected representatives -- about the National Security Agency program to collect and store mass surveillance.  This course correction is no doubt a forced one that followed months of pressure from the media and allies as a result of leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.  While stubborn, Clapper reveals an emerging willingness to balance the interests of security and a growing surveillance apparatus with privacy, particularly through oversight by elected representatives. It also draws significant light between the US and current Canadian posture following similar reports of the use of so-called meta-data.Appearing before the National Security and Defence Committee after reports -- also stemming from illegal Snowden disclosures -- that CSEC used airport wifi to track the electronic devices of Canadian passengers, Clapper's Canadian counterpart Stephen Rigby testified that any further oversight should be viewed with “caution”.  His colleagues that followed, Director of CSIS Michel Coulombe, and head of CSEC John Forster went on to defend the use of metadata.  Since then, MP Wayne Easter's Bill C-551 calling to more adequately empower elected officials through a national security committee of parliamentarians was voted down by the Conservative majority, 146 - 130.This puts Canada in the unusual position of being less willing than the United States to, as Eisenhower once said, “compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals”.  The solution for Eisenhower in 1961 was a knowledgeable citizenry.  Since then, issues that nations faced in defence and security have only become more complicated, incorporating digital technologies, the proliferation of cyber warfare tactics and a social media revolution.  In light of this, it is more important than ever to elevate the discussion towards an effective security policy.Yet this requires members of parliament themselves to know what security agencies are doing.  In the face of an increasingly partisan approach to foreign and defence issues, most recently demonstrated by the Prime Minister's initial response to a lack of opposition members in the delegation to the Ukraine, that is unlikely.Consider a particularly revealing joke Canada's National Security Advisor Stephen Rigby made while responding to a question from Senator Romeo Dallaire concerning Canada's so-called “comprehensive approach”.  The term has been used in recent years to describe Canada's interagency, or whole-of-government, approach to complex international challenges.  The approach, evident most recently in Afghanistan, involves the bringing to bear of Canada's defence, diplomacy and development resources and was thus dubbed the “3Ds” (a term the US has since adopted).  The strategy compels cooperation across departments and agencies. Specifically, Senator Dallaire wanted to know who was currently in charge of the government's 3D coordination effort today.The Prime Minister's National Security Advisor replied, “I think most days Senator, for my sins, I am.”It is a less than enthusiastic reply that officials in government -- particularly those who have tried to execute a cross departmental effort -- would not find surprising.  In fact, the “whole of government approach” is something that many officials love to hate.  It requires government departments and agencies, which often have different vocabularies, to find common language for the greater good.Those who executed this approach under the banner of Task Force Kandahar in Afghanistan dealt with that civilian/military divide daily while attempting to execute a counter-insurgency effort in an insecure environment.  Ultimately, the immediacy of the severe repercussions of a conflict zone became the greatest catalyst for agencies to get along.  With the Taliban threatening locals for accepting development assistance, for example, enemy atmospherics necessarily had to be incorporated into a development plan.  (Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.)  Currently, as Senator Dallaire points out, there seems to be a lack of “body politic” for that coordination at the state level.In peace time -- and in the face of shrinking resources -- the will to work together easily devolves into working at cross purposes.  Continuing with his fitting line of questioning, Senator Dallaire went on to draw a direct link between the need for cooperation and the ability of governments to produce contingency plans for Canada to undertake operations – e.g., preventing potential mass atrocities -- in imploding nations.  After all, back in 1994, it was the siloing of information and 'accountability shifting' across institutions that turned the general's requests for support from the United Nations into the equivalent of screams from the bottom of a well.  As we have seen in the case of Rwanda, Afghanistan and elsewhere, if coordination is to be successful at the operational level it must be successful at home across departments and institutions at the state level.Now, in the midst of emerging technologies and cyber warfare, it is that much more complicated -- making inter-agency and cross departmental cooperation even more crucial.  Consider even a cursory glance at recent events: a New York Times opinion editorial by Vladimir Putin regarding Syria, in which the Russian president attempts to influence the American public's will to intervene; the taping and leaking of a private conversation concerning Ukraine, in which US State Department official Victoria Nuland  slags the EU, causing potential damage at an extremely delicate time; and recent protests in Instanbul, Turkey over government control of the internet which resulted in the use of tear gas and water cannons. The social media landscape has become an area of operation, itself, as evidenced by the proliferation of extremists' websites, which now number in the tens of thousands.In short, whether in the covert world of intelligence gathering, or on the other side of the information spectrum in social media and public diplomacy, the world has become an information battleground.  Operating effectively in this new arena requires a cohesive response and a foreign and defence strategy in which open source intelligence analysts, public diplomacy and development officers work together.  Unfortunately, this cooperation between foreign, development and security agencies has all but disappeared since Canada's involvement in Afghanistan.  In the aftermath of the Snowden disclosures, while much has been made of the accountability gap over those collecting and protecting information, an equally important debate must be had to ensure those using the information are doing so effectively.It's a hard sell to security agencies who protect information via deliberate compartmentalization.  However, it is not without precedent.  General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the US government's ultra secretive Joint Special Operations Command, insisted on unprecedented inter-agency cooperation -- or what he described as 'a network to fight a network' -- forcing agencies to work together and share information despite obvious historical discomfort.  The inter-agency machine that was created resulted in the killing of the leader of Al Queda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and many believe it laid the foundation for the successful killing of Osama Bin Laden.When it comes to surveillance, in the words of communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message.  In short, to have an effective security policy, Canada must first get the machinery of government and interdepartmental apparatus right.  Part of the solution lies in equipping public policy makers with the information necessary to have a genuine and meaningful debate about our approach and the range of threats Canada currently faces.Renée Filiatrault is accredited with Information Operations Officer Battlefield training and served Task Force Kandahar in Afghanistan. Before that, she served two Ministers of National Defence. She is currently a professor at the Algonquin College School of Media.