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The Intelligence Enterprise: How prepared are the heads of our intelligence organizations?

There was a report in The Economist in July that Canada’s intelligence analysts are pretty good. The article cited a study which found that intelligence reports prepared for the federal government were 94% accurate in their strategic forecasts. This is good news for everyone involved, from the “consumers” of intelligence such as political leaders and senior officials who often have to make tough calls in confusing situations, to the “producers” in the trenches of the collection and assessment units of the federal agencies responsible for forecasting geopolitical events.

But there is more to the story – and work to do to ensure Canada has the intelligence resources needed to back-stop its growing exposure to global trends and developments. One issue in particular requires attention: the preparation of those who will one day become the heads of Canada’s intelligence organizations.

Canadian intelligence history

Canada has never had a “culture of intelligence” as exists in Britain or the United States. This country was never “saved” by its intelligence resources, as the British were by breaking the Enigma code in World War II. Nor did our defences fail from ignoring intelligence, as happened to the United States at Pearl Harbor. Canada enjoyed a unique geopolitical position located just above the United States. Canada was a safe place, and that was how our politicians saw us until World War II.

Canada’s government, with respect to intelligence, was and remains risk averse and extremely parsimonious. Most intelligence decisions during the early days were made by public servants. Politicians remained largely peripheral to intelligence until relatively recently. World War II proved a watershed in Canadian intelligence history. Intelligence finally came into its own, although risk avoidance and doing things on the cheap remained. Among politicians, there was little knowledge or understanding about intelligence. Politicians today are more aware about intelligence matters, but they remain far behind their British and American counterparts in making best use of intelligence in decision-making.

If there is a single explanation for the differences between Canada and its closest allies, it is that Canada’s political leaders and senior public servants have lacked imagination. Absent a vision of the purposes which could be served by and the benefits derived from strong intelligence organizations, the country continues to make limited use of the high-quality intelligence it does have and to be sparing in funding the generating of intelligence. Uniquely among the leading countries of the world, Canada still does not have a foreign intelligence service, mostly because of worries about cost.

The heads of intelligence organizations

What do the heads of our intelligence organizations really know about the intelligence business on the eve of assuming this significant responsibility? As it happens, not nearly as much as they should – or their British or American counterparts do.

To begin with, very few have ascended to their positions from the ranks of intelligence or have had any significant intelligence training for such responsibilities. Most directors of CSIS have come from outside the organization although several have had intelligence backgrounds from elsewhere in the government. One Canadian Forces general officer has been promoted from within the intelligence trade, but this resulted in all director general-level positions in military intelligence being staffed from other trades. No head of the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat in the Privy Council Office has attained the position with an extensive background in intelligence.

Canada does not, and likely never will, enjoy the mix of career assignments for intelligence leaders such as exists in the United States, where individuals move freely from positions involving hands-on tasks in security and intelligence organizations to staff positions in Congress or to postings to universities and think tanks, and then back into government. Canada’s size, political system, and culture tend to work against such movement. It is not unheard of, however, and there is probably greater scope for it now than a decade or two ago.

As a rule, new heads of Canadian intelligence organizations have come from the ranks of the public service and bring the leadership and management skills one would expect of individuals who have risen to positions equivalent to those of deputy ministers of line departments of the federal government. This is a definite advantage – certainly preferable to parachuting in political appointees.

It is also an advantage that individuals who have attained such levels very likely have had some exposure to the intelligence process in previous assignments as intelligence clients/consumers. Exposure to the end product of the intelligence cycle provides a practical understanding of the benefits of intelligence material, but it does not instruct in how materials are collected, processed, and prepared as intelligence end products. Reading finished intelligence assessments or attending intelligence briefings typically does not generate much knowledge of the constraints, opportunities, dynamics, and limitations which govern the intelligence business or much understanding of the intelligence community writ large, its strengths and weaknesses, its corporate cultures.

In the event, new incumbents typically face a steep learning curve, and even those who arrive with strong views on the quality and value of various intelligence materials derived from being intelligence consumers will have limited ability to question the intelligence process or explore ways in which intelligence products could be made better, at least until well into their terms of office.

Preparing executives

There are steps which can be taken to promote greater understanding of intelligence work among those who are destined to become leaders of intelligence organizations in Canada. The process would be career-long and only moderately costly – and would likely provide only a partial solution. But the payoff could be considerable.

A first step must be to demystify the world of intelligence. Members of the public service generally have very little understanding of intelligence and the important role it plays as a tool of statecraft. For this, the intelligence community’s preoccupation with secrecy is largely to blame. As part of their induction process, entrants to the public service should learn about intelligence to the extent that it will become part of their work. Even today, I believe many consumers of intelligence in departments of the federal government have little understanding of where the intelligence material comes from and what value it holds for them.

Intelligence must be part of the learning cycle from the commencement of careers in the public service and onward. Training in intelligence, appropriate to level and responsibility, should be as routine as training in the generation and use of other information and the associated skills such as planning, management and communications.

Once individuals have been provided a high security clearance or promoted to the Executive level in government, they should receive not just security briefings about protecting materials but also contextual training on the intelligence they are being provided or could have access to. As individuals advance to still more senior positions, training programs should routinely include detailed briefings on the intelligence process in order to instill an appreciation on the part of potential future heads of intelligence organizations of the quality and reliability of various forms of intelligence output.

Against such a background, incoming heads of intelligence organizations would arrive already well versed in how the intelligence community, and their organization in particular, functioned. Instead of their first weeks and months being spent learning the fundamentals, new heads could begin to exercise real command from the outset – and within short order begin to explore efficiencies and better ways of meeting the organization’s goals.

One other step worth exploring is to make greater use of academia to prepare young people for careers in intelligence. On the surface, this would not appear to be a very promising avenue. University students planning on professional careers would not likely be attracted to courses in a field where the prospects for employment currently appear exceedingly limited. Notwithstanding the enormous expansion in Public Safety, CSIS and CSE since 9/11, the reality today is that relatively few new jobs in the intelligence community become available in any one year. On the other hand, there will always be careers in government, young people with a breadth of knowledge encompassing a variety of disciplines will always be highly prized, and one of the disciplines with growing importance in government is intelligence. It could be argued, then, that encouraging Canada’s universities to offer courses in intelligence would make sense, just as Canada’s military colleges are doing in response to the vital role intelligence is assuming in military operations.

A final note

Canada’s intelligence resources are relatively meagre compared to those of its major allies and other G-8 countries. This needs to change. Meanwhile, there is potential to better utilize the resources we do have. Structural and procedural improvements are constantly being made and these should be applauded. But nothing will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Canada’s intelligence organizations over the long term as preparing the next generation for leadership of these organizations.

Kurt F. Jensen

Adjunct professor at Carleton University in Ottawa where he teaches courses on intelligence in the department of political science, career foreign service officer who specialized in security and intelligence, deputy director of foreign intelligence at the Department of Foreign Affairs, author of Cautious Beginnings: Canadian Foreign Intelligence, 1939-1951 (UBC Press 2008).

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