Global Affairs intelligence gathering unit lacked oversight, was political risk for Canada: report

The watchdog warns in no uncertain terms that allowing ‘mission creep’ to turn the Global Security Reporting Program into a ‘covert’ collection unit would be dangerous

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OTTAWA – A controversial intelligence gathering unit within Global Affairs lacked oversight and structure, needed to better protect its sources and risked causing reputational and political harm to Canada.

That’s according to a new report released Wednesday by a Canadian intelligence apparatus watchdog, the National Security and Information Review Agency (NSIRA), on Global Affairs Canada’s Global Security Reporting Program (GSRP).

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The GSRP is a small intelligence gathering unit of roughly 30 diplomats that was set up in the aftermath of 9/11 to provide information to collect “overt security-related information” in sensitive regions across the world.

The report focused on the work of between 2017 and 2019 and was provided to the government in 2021. It was not immediately clear if the report’s findings still apply today.

But NSIRA withheld publication for three years because of the arrests by the Chinese government of Michal Spavor and Michael Kovrig under the guise of espionage in what is widely seen as a retaliation for Canada’s arrest of top Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Kovrig had worked as a diplomat for the GSRP a few years before his arrest.

The GSRP has recently come under intense scrutiny following accusations first published in the Globe and Mail by Spavor that he was imprisoned by China after unwittingly sharing information to Kovrig that was then passed on to Western intelligence services.

The allegations have put a spotlight both on the work of the GSRP and the ongoing turf war between GAC and the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) over which organization should lead Canada’s intelligence gathering abroad.

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In its review of the GSRP, NSIRA said the program is a “key component” of Global Affairs’ security and intelligence work oversees but required better governance and accountability structures, oversight and safeguards for its overseas contacts.

Otherwise, “GSRP activities have the potential to cause unnecessary reputational and political harm to the Government of Canada,” the agency noted.

NSIRA never specifically mentions Kovrig or Spavor in the report, but appears to allude to the former when warning about the risks of former GSRP officers losing diplomatic protections when they leave GAC.

“It was not clear if all officers understood that once they are no longer afforded diplomatic immunity, a receiving state may seek retaliatory measures against them,” NSIRA wrote.

The agency found that the GSRP operated in a “distinctly grey zone” between an intelligence service and regular diplomatic reporting, being neither completely one nor the either.

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But the report warns in no uncertain terms that allowing “mission creep” to turn the program into a “covert” collection unit would be dangerous.

“The creation of a foreign intelligence entity within GAG, or the allowance of mission creep by the GSRP into covert collection would run against the principles of the (Vienna Convention)” which universally codifies the treatment and protection of diplomats, reads the report.

An overarching theme in the report is a fear that the work done by GSRP diplomats might exceed the diplomatic mandates, and thus protections, set out in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

For example, the review noted GSRP lacked legal guidance and training to make sure they operate within Vienna Convention parameters.

“This lack of knowledge may have serious consequences on the GSRP officer’s ability to conduct themselves in accordance with their diplomatic duties. In addition, once a GSRP officer is no longer afforded diplomatic immunity, a receiving state may seek retaliatory measures,” reads the report.

The report also worries that GSRP officers needed to better protect their sources, namely in hostile countries with severe security apparatuses.

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The 30 GSRP diplomats differ from their colleagues because roughly 90 per cent of their time is dedicated to information collection, whereas other diplomats spend considerable time on public diplomacy activities and administrative tasks.

They also differ from their GAC colleagues in another unusual way: not enough oversight from headquarters, per the review.

“Four full time employees at HQ are responsible for the management of approximately thirty officers, the vetting of approximately two thousand reports per year, for providing informal policy guidance, and conducting outreach with relevant stakeholders. This deprives HQ of the capacity to perform adequate quality control of officer activities,” reads the report.

The review offered seven recommendations to GAC such as creating a governance framework, risk protocols and a “thorough” legal assessment of the program’s activities.

The report also calls on the department to make clear “deconfliction guidelines” with CSIS, noting at many points there were clashes between both departments’ work abroad.

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In a statement Wednesday, GAC spokesperson Grantly Franklin said the department has implemented or is in the process of implementing all of NSIRA’s recommendations.

In a 2021 letter responding to the report, then GAC deputy minister Marta Morgan said she “broadly” accepted the findings but had multiple concerns about review.

She said the report did “not adequately account” for GAC’s “overall leadership role in the conduct of foreign relations, including its foreign intelligence function.”

She dedicated half of her three-page letter to argue that GAC, not CSIS, is Canada’s lead foreign intelligence agency and that the GSRP is a vital part of that toolkit.

“The report’s finding that the Program’s activities have the potential to cause reputational and political harm to the Government of Canada in our view gives inadequate consideration to the fact that GSRP officers operate overtly under a transparent and well-established mandate,” she wrote.

“All Canadian diplomats mandated to provide diplomatic reporting are equally exposed to possible perceptions by host States that their diplomatic reporting activities interfere with its internal affairs,” she added.

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In an interview, retired GAC executive Artur Wilczynski, who oversaw the GSRP from 2010 to 2014, said the report had many important findings but also “overstated” the risks posed by the program.

“I think where it misses the mark is an understanding of the diplomatic environment the GSRP operates in and the way that foreign governments and agencies understand the work of the GSRP,” he said.

“We have to be mindful of the risk, we have to continually do better in terms of training and making sure that folks comply with their obligations under the Vienna Convention. But I actually think that the review maybe overstates that risk.”

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