Juneau and Rigby: The Rouleau report missed an opportunity on intelligence
When it comes to policing, the POEC commission report was clear and scathing in its criticisms. It was less upfront about lessons that must be learned about the limits of our intelligence gathering.
By: Thomas Juneau and Vincent Rigby
On 17 February, the Public Order Emergency Commission chaired by Justice Paul Rouleau published its long-awaited report on the “Freedom” Convoy. A massive, five-volume effort, it concludes that the Trudeau Government was justified in invoking the Emergencies Act last winter to clear protesters in Ottawa and at border crossings across the country.
At the same time, the peport argues that mistakes committed by police services and all three levels of government led to a crisis that could have, and should have, been avoided. It singles out policing — in Ottawa and in Ontario — for particularly scathing criticism. It also identifies a “failure of federalism” as one the main culprits behind poor crisis management. Three levels of government came up short in sharing intelligence and working together effectively to tackle an event unique in Canadian history.
Despite these judgements, the peport concludes that an intelligence failure did not occur during the Freedom convoy. This assessment will be much debated by security and intelligence experts. But whether a failure took place or not, few will deny that the federal government’s intelligence enterprise can learn lessons from this episode. In this vein, the report makes recommendations to improve intelligence collection, assessment, and distribution. The problem is that these recommendations — only a handful out of a total of 56 — are limited in scope, ignore important weaknesses revealed during the crisis, and lack specifics. It adds up, unfortunately, to a missed opportunity to shake up Canada’s security and intelligence community.
The report, for example, recommends that the federal government improve its ability to monitor social media, whose extensive use by convoy actors played a critical role in the origins and escalation of the crisis. While government did collect intelligence on social media, agencies such as CSIS had their hands tied due to limited mandates. This resulted in an intelligence gap.
We believe the government should proceed with this recommendation. Unfortunately, the report offers no guidance on how it should be implemented. Our advice would be to proceed cautiously. We can expect the inevitable allegations that Canada’s security and intelligence agencies are spying on innocent Canadians going about their business online. Since the government will need to establish safeguards to ensure that Canadians’ rights are respected, consultations with Parliament and civil society will be required. Another key question will focus on which department should take the lead. We have argued previously that the government should explore the establishment of a stand-alone unit, perhaps in Public Safety Canada, that collects and analyzes open-source intelligence, as some of our allies have done. Such a centre of excellence would have the mandate to research social media postings not only internationally but also in Canada, while of course respecting citizens’ privacy and Charter rights. This unit would need to coordinate its work closely with other federal departments and with other levels of governments.
The report also recommends that the federal government take the lead in improving intelligence sharing and coordination more broadly among the three levels of government. The threats facing Canada today — including violent extremism, economic espionage, foreign interference, and disinformation — call for whole-of-society responses. Yet the convoy demonstrated what was already clear: intelligence and security cooperation between Ottawa, the provinces and municipalities is seriously lacking. Once again, the report is alternately vague (“develop or enhance protocols” for major events), obvious (“adhere to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms”) or unclear (“create a single national intelligence coordinator for major events”). At the very least, Ottawa should take the lead in establishing permanent mechanisms — not just for large events — to share information and coordinate security policies and operations between the various levels of government on a regular basis.
Another report recommendation calls for a review to ensure similar coordination among federal intelligence agencies. While a review may well be laudable, we would suggest that some of the solutions are already apparent. Above all, the centre of government needs to strengthen its intelligence capability at both the political and bureaucratic levels. The government should establish a national security cabinet committee, chaired by the prime minister, which, inter alia, receives regular intelligence briefings. This committee should then be supported by an enhanced national security and intelligence adviser; the position currently possesses limited resources and powers of coordination. To counter ongoing siloed intelligence analysis, a strong, central body is required to act as a fusion centre to produce whole-of-government intelligence assessments, both domestic and international. This was lacking during the convoy, as the government never received an integrated threat picture.
Finally, the Rouleau Report could have tied these strands together by calling for a comprehensive review of Canada’s national security strategy. Canada has not conducted such a review since 2004, when the world was a vastly different place. As last year’s protests demonstrated, reinforced by the recent activities of hostile states such as China and Russia, Canada desperately needs to take national security more seriously.
Thomas Juneau is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Vincent Rigby is a former National Security and Intelligence Advisor to the prime minister and now a visiting professor with McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy. They are the co-directors of the University of Ottawa’s task force report on national security.
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