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A Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

Canada has worked under a shared model of foreign intelligence collection since the second World war. It was once thought that the combined mandates of the security service, national policing, military, cryptologic establishment and the diplomatic core, with some central coordinating efforts - would suffice.

Canada has heavily relied on allies for intelligence, while the global environment has become more complex and gaps in intelligence have widened to the point where Canada is strategically disadvantaged.


Changing demographics, resource competition, environment change, globalization, economics, governance, urbanization, competitive geopolitics, the unprecedented advancement in science and technology, are significant trends shaping the future security environment. These trends are developing rapidly along a converging timeline to create emergent effects, threats and competing opportunities. Never have the need for enhanced foreign intelligence been more critical.

Canada’s adversaries will continue to weaponize in cyberspace and seize vital high ground as part of grand strategies for AI supremacy and dominance of the Information Cognitive Domain[1]. In this future, intelligence will become critical.

The contest to control and influence the fabric of cyberspace and the information domain will be as significant as the Manhattan project.

Canada’s post-Cold War enemies are hidden, and Canada’s diplomatic and military allies have remained economic competitors. On those grounds alone, Canada needs a Foreign Intelligence Service.”[2]

Pacing threats such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, compete with Canada in cyberspace and economically just below the level-of-armed-conflict. China's road and belt initiative will shift the balance of economic, technological and military global power. The Thousands Talent Plan recruits leading international experts in scientific research, innovation, and entrepreneurship. United Front Work gathers intelligence on, and attempts to influence elite individuals and organizations inside Canada. Meanwhile, a Three Warfares strategy of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) coordinates public opinion, psychological and legal warfare.[3] China is shaping global infrastructure at an alarming speed: launching low orbit 5G satellites over Canada’s Arctic, conducting industrial espionage against our business and seeking to impose their a social credit system of surveillance onto Canadians through manipulation of telecommunication standards and applications.

Russia for their part, is a multi-domain threat that holds North America at risk, whether it be projecting power globally through informationized or hybrid warfare, compromising supply chains or propagating a fire-hose of falsehoods, misinformation and disinformation[4], which intend to erode, disrupt and degrade trust in the democratic system and undermine fundamental Canadian values and quality-of-life.

Meanwhile, rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea, pound Canada in cyberspace, outside of any international norms of behaviour.

We foresee the build-up of offensive cyber capabilities of nation states and a consolidation of darkweb territory by transnational crime that is supported by adversary states. Ultimately leading to increased competition and conflict that will spill out in real life.

Amongst all the pacing threats, we see tight collaboration industry, government, military, intelligence services and organized crime as part of a grand strategy. To this, Canada lacks an equivalent counter-strategy or public-private partnership.


The three key Intelligence challenges are:

1. Perhaps, the greatest challenge of our lifetime will be the war on truth - from foreign influence, interference and mis-information;

2. Rebalancing the playing field from Global economic competition;

3. Getting in front of[5], the proxy wars between nation states who are directly targeting the private sector (often over cyberspace) thus bypassing the military, intelligence, security and police.

Canada has a blind spot when it comes to strategic foresighting, human information collection and intelligence production relating to the political, military or economic activities of foreign states for the purpose of protecting Canadian interests globally.

The information domain is blocked, balkanized, censored and denied in over 127 countries, thus greatly impairing our view from Canada, and limiting the fidelity and acuity of our foreign intelligence. Furthermore, the intelligence community will need to better demonstrate direct value to the socio-economic well-being of Canadians and businesses.

Economic security and intelligence will require strong industry partnerships.

For many of these reasons, it is more important than ever that we consider establishing a Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service, to provide accurate and timely foreknowledge to the capabilities, plans, designs and deceptions, of which our adversaries prefer to keep hidden.


Historically, the foreign intelligence mission has been shared across multiple agencies and departments; leaving strategic gaps, operational exposures and creating inefficiencies, while driving up costs and risk. Divergent mandates and priorities have further segmented the business. Regressive legislative interpretation and policy decisions since 1990, and most recently in 2021, have exacerbated the situation substantively, thus requiring a reframing of Canada’s approach.

“The Canadian security and intelligence community is focused on domestic threats. These are important, no doubt, but in an increasingly globalized world, where neither travel, commerce, communication, and especially conflict, are domestic, it has become necessary to develop a capacity for acquiring timely intelligence regarding the intentions and capabilities of foreign states, corporations, and non-state political and religious actors.”[6]


Espionage is the World’s second oldest profession.

Foreign Intelligence is serious business. One needs a system (people, processes, technology) designed for a singular purpose. The culture and game is entirely different than security or signals intelligence, diplomacy, military operations or law enforcement.

You can’t take volleyball, basketball and soccer players and ask them to play competitive hockey. Similarly, one can never win a game without offense.

Human-led Foreign intelligence agencies require fundamentally different: talent, technology, infrastructure, organizational models, legislation, training, tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP). One of the noteworthy differences is that a foreign intelligence service operates clandestine assets abroad in contested or hostile environments not necessarily pursuing just geopolitical-economic threats but also opportunities. Hence, foreign intelligence services distinguish themselves with an extended global infrastructure, enhanced stealth, operational security and a greater assumption of risk.

Foreign services’ have a requirement for much greater operational security, because, should an agent, operative or source of that service be uncovered, they risk arrest, torture and execution. Foreign services must protect their agents at all costs, even to the point of abandoning an operation to do so. Note that our adversaries believe that Canada already conducts foreign intelligence operations, and as consequence, innocent Canadian citizens are arrested on fabricated spying charges.

It is envisioned that a foreign intelligence service could also fulfill a number of missions in the cyber domain: from recruiting agents within adversarial cyber programs, analyzing nation state capabilities, attribution of actors, recruiting and running sources online, conducting close access operations, strategic foresighting and determining strategic intent. A HUMINT service would also enable SIGINT in a number of key areas.


Defining foreign intelligence is perhaps the most fundamental yet complex practical challenge. It is not just intelligence collected on foreigners abroad but can include intelligence collected within Canada, or cyberspace and may even touch on Canadians.

Starting with the distinction between Security Intelligence (SI) and Foreign Intelligence (FI). Intelligence helps to manage complexity not just counter threats.

Security Intelligence (SI) pertains threats against Canada whereas Foreign Intelligence (FI) involves information collection relating to the political or economic activities of foreign states.

In reality, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Global Affairs, Department of National Defence, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Communications Security Establishment collect both security intelligence and foreign intelligence to various degrees. The differences are very nuanced.

According to the CSIS web site: The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has both a SI (s.12) and FI (s.16) mandate and may investigate threats to the security of Canada anywhere. CSIS collects and analyzes threat-related information, which is typically disseminated to government partners through intelligence reports and other intelligence products. Key threats include terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, espionage, foreign interference and cyber-tampering affecting critical infrastructure. CSIS authorized to collect SI abroad from foreign agencies through liaison, run human sources and forward-deployed collection assets. CSIS may also take measures to reduce threats to the security of Canada in accordance with well-defined legal requirements and Ministerial direction. Under s.16 of the Act, CSIS can also assist the Minister of National Defence or the Minister of Foreign Affairs to collect information or intelligence relating to the capabilities, intentions or activities of any foreign states or group of foreign states in defence of Canada or the conduct of the international affairs of Canada, but is limited to acting within Canada,

The Communications Security Establishment (CSE), has the government mandate to collect signals intelligence SIGINT outside of Canada, covertly or otherwise, information from or through the global information infrastructure, in accordance with the Government of Canada’s intelligence priorities. [CSE Website] The CSE mission includes alerting the government to the activities of foreign entities that seek to undermine Canada’s national prosperity and security. Signals intelligence activities relate to foreign-based cyber threats, espionage, terrorism, kidnappings of Canadians abroad [Note that these are SI functions]. More substantively, CSE foreign intelligence also supports government decision-making and policy-making in defence, security and international affairs by providing important insights into global events. [Note the CSE appears to define Foreign Intelligence and any intelligence not targeting Canadians whether it is for SI or FI.]

Military Intelligence (MI) within the Canadian Armed Forces is concerned with providing relevant and correct information to enable commanders to make decisions. [CAF web site] This definition is exceptionally broad, but in practice is taken to mean pertaining to authorized military targets in theatres of operation abroad or restricted to military bases within Canada.

According to the RCMP web site, criminal intelligence is the mandate of Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA) such as the RCMP. The investigation must related to individuals suspected of breaching the Criminal Code of Canada. The RCMP's mandate, as outlined in Section 18 of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Act, is multi-faceted and includes preventing and investigating crime; maintaining peace and order; enforcing laws; contributing to national security; ensuring the safety of state officials, visiting dignitaries and foreign missions; and providing vital operational support services to other police and law enforcement agencies within Canada and abroad. The RCMP is unique in the world since it is a national, federal, provincial, and municipal policing body. The National Security Criminal Investigations Program conducts investigations into terrorism, transnational crime, espionage, sabotage, cyber attacks, foreign influenced activities or threats from chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons The RCMP has liaison officers stationed abroad. [You can see how the RCMP mandate may overlap with CSIS in both SI and FI. However, typically the RCMP get involved when an investigation is reaching the stage of prosecution.]

Global Affairs Canada collects diplomatic information and intelligence related to International Security through their threat assessment and intelligence services division and Global Security Reporting Program (GSRP). [GAC web site]

The private sector also works in this space and may involve: Multinational Corporations, Commercial intelligence companies, private military contractors (PMC), non-government organizations (NGO), security researchers and academics.

With so many players on the field, a Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service is still necessary because there are still FI gaps between mandates and gaps not filled by existing mandates owing to competing priorities or expertise. The use of HUMINT means of collection outside of Canada remains a critical gap in coverage cannot be adequately addressed through other means. Furthermore, much of Canada’s FI requirements are met through what allies chose to share.

“Canada is a net consumer of intelligence produced by others for their own purposes.“[7]


It is envisioned that a Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service would principally be a HUMINT agency exclusively operating external to Canada. Nevertheless, if we look at similar agencies like Canadian Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the British Secret Service (MI6), it is generally accepted that only 20 percent of the volume of intelligence is achieved from human sources. It is reasonable therefore to expect that a Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service would need to have a sophisticated organic open source and technical intelligence collection capability dedicated to their unique operational missions and mandates. Commensurately, an all-source analytical capacity would be needed to corroborate sources, provide context and develop narrative for that reporting makes sense to clients and is actionable. Contextualized analysis and the normalizing the reporting by each agency helps prepare the material for central analysis and consolidated intelligence estimates.


As previously mentioned, many government agencies and private sector entities collect both SI and FI. This overlapping coverage requires cooperation, collaboration and coordination, the management of intelligence equities and operational de-confliction. A Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service would fit into this rubric while providing unique value to the community.

A great example of grey area is that of nuclear weapon proliferation. Certainly, one can make the case that this is both a FI and SI issue. Multiple agencies have a vested interest in this subject. Duplication of efforts or operational fratricide is a concern as is absence of engagement.


The value proposition and performance measurements between law enforcement, signals, security and foreign intelligence are objectively different. Solving local crimes requires different skills and positioning than determining economic strategies of a foreign state. Trying to support national security, global economic competitiveness, environmental, or world health with intelligence from within Canada has limits. Hence, being well-positioned abroad, helps to establish a tangible global worldview. Even domestic mandates will require global perspectives. Security intelligence and threat intelligence often need foreign intelligence to determine adversarial capability and intent.

A foreign intelligence service can provide a significant return-on-investment for a country while protecting citizens and institutions. A sovereign foreign intelligence service allows for:

  • Direct and targeted answers to important questions for analysts and decision makers on about foreign states which currently have not been answered through other means;

  • Enhanced, yet focused, situational awareness and understanding of the global competitive space particularly that which is deliberately hidden from view or off-line;

  • Unique context and perspective gained through HUMINT;

  • Additional, advanced warnings and indicators from outside of Canada;

  • Deterrence and covert signaling to avoid strategic miscalculation such as trade disputes, or conflict. Espionage has been credited with averting nuclear war on several occasions;

  • Pre-emptively countering industrial espionage while promoting competitiveness through actionable business intelligence;

  • Positive attribution of foreign actors, necessary to indict, prosecute or target;

  • Improved efficacy of FI when fused with other means;

  • Corroboration from multiple sources for enriched accuracy; and

  • Mitigating strategic surprise for health, global affairs, politics, trade and the military.

Economic security matters to Canadians. Foreign state-sponsored industrial espionage is serious. CSIS in their 2021 annual report recognizes that espionage and inference is a primary threat to Canadians. Similarly, the FBI reports two–thousand open cases involving just Chinese espionage and interference with a new case every ten hours. Nearly every Canadian will be affected by foreign source cyber attacks, costing the country over $100 billion annually. We will need FI and SI to play forward to counter these threats.

Only with enhanced foreign intelligence and security intelligence collection abroad, cooperation amongst all the agencies and closing existing gaps in coverage, will Canada be able to foresee and counter such threats, while competing globally. Otherwise, the first time we are seeing an attack or competitive initiative is after it has hit our shores. Reacting to threats is costly and leaves few options. It puts extra burden on security and law enforcement agencies.


Canadians need to stop pretending that we live in a walled garden. All G20 nations have foreign intelligence services - except Canada.

An enduring challenge has been that Canada has little intelligence culture and literacy amongst the establishment and citizenry. What many Canadians believe about intelligence work comes from watching the news, television shows or Hollywood movies. This makes it exceeding difficult to have deep discussions on national security and foreign intelligence. Foreign Intelligence also needs sophisticated clients to help shape primary intelligence requirements, get the most out of the system, and to interpret the end-products.

Hence, the need for an open dialog on Intelligence.

Intelligence is about getting to the truth of the matter, foresighting and producing action intelligence. There is no substitute for the intellectual hard work of ingesting complex information streams, doing the analysis. All-source foreign intelligence provides context and enhanced narrative with global perspective with a wide-aperture, enhanced acuity and fidelity. Whereas, single-source domestic intelligence is important, but only one piece of the puzzle. Relying on allies for our foreign intelligence to access an external worldview, invites cultural and political bias into our decision-making. Working within an alliance is important and we need to be seen as pulling our weight.

We have Canadian content rules in broadcasting and entertainment, but not in intelligence.

Creating a foreign intelligence organization is complex. The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Certain Activities of the RCMP, better known as the McDonald Commission published findings in 1981, found that law enforcement agencies are generally unsuitable for security intelligence work. [McDonald Commission Report] Hence, CSIS was established in 1984 as result. The RCMP Security Service became CSIS overnight, but the resources, infrastructure and culture were all based on policing. It took nearly two decades to gradually transform the organization into a security intelligence agency.

Policing and intelligence are different in culture, mission and mandate. Simplistically, police-work starts with a local crime and builds a case for court. The infrastructure and governance is decentralized regionally.

Conversely, Security intelligence Services are built on a more centralized organizational model and data flows with limited regional points of presence. Technical intelligence and big data tend to play a more substantive role in production for SI. The product is not developed for criminal prosecution but threat intelligence or threat reduction activities. In contrast, a signals intelligence agency is highly-centralized and uses technical sources exclusively to collect foreign data of potential value exclusively for government clients. A FI agency would have centralized domestic headquarters and many dispersed offices or facilities around the globe - similar to Global Affairs Canada.

The difference between SI and FI is not the geography but the value proposition. FI helps to level-the-playing-field for a country globally by providing unique information to decision makers. FI is mostly not about threats, though it can be. It is about advantage and foreign policy outcomes. A FI service can also provide a covert capability including capacity building to allies. In contrast, SI is a defensive mandate to protect Canadians and Canada (at home and abroad from harm).

It is worth noting that CSIS has collected Security Intelligence (SI) on foreign soil and Foreign Intelligence (FI) domestically under Section 16 of the Act for quite some time [See Public SIRC reports]. Recent interpretation by the court has curtailed decades of domestic FI collection, and sparked this debate for clarifying CSIS existing s12 foreign and s16 domestic mandates and the establishment of an independent Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service (CFIS).

A foreign intelligence service most resembles a security-intelligence service in organizational model but with a number of key differences: it operates abroad and is tasked with information collection and intelligence production relating to the political, military or economic activities of foreign states for the purpose of protecting Canadian interests globally.

For these reasons, a foreign intelligence agency cannot simply be created by transplanting resources and mechanisms from security, police, military or diplomatic worlds. The infrastructure is not reusable. Some skills are transferrable but many are not. Foreign intelligence requires scouting and recruiting unique talent and special training for analysts and operatives. The enterprise will require sophisticated support infrastructure. Collection networks, non-traditional partnerships and a client ecosystem will need to be established from the ground up.

Big data is the currency of all intelligence agencies

A high-performance culture will need to be cultivated to align with new missions and mandates. The fusion of human and technical intelligence will require sophisticated big data analytics - much like SI. Such a foreign intelligence service will rely on open source intelligence (OSINT) to a far greater degree than other agencies and establishments. Architects of the new agency will need to recognize the close link between (OSINT) and Foreign Intelligence (FI) and have deep experience in both. Such a service would require integral Cyber support, distinct from Signals Intelligence SIGINT while also working closely with SIGINT to fully unlock and enable each of their respective mandates. The work will be substantively riskier than sitting comfortably back in an office in Canada or behind diplomatic protection. Thus requiring the next-level of operational security (OPSEC) and overwatch.

A national intelligence apparatus requires the integration of SI and FI. Terrorism, counter-proliferation and espionage (such as theft of IP) are now intrinsically linked with trade, aid, monetary and foreign policy. Decision makers need "a rich picture" - which is derived from all-source, integrated analysis rather than a revolving door of message-bearers all providing valuable but conflicting perspectives on key issues.

The notion of a foreign intelligence was studied, designed and recommended a number of times in the recent past. Meanwhile, Canada’s allies and adversaries have build, deployed and formally operated such a capability since WWII. While, a commercial intelligence market has emerged with the rise of OSINT and data brokers to fill the gap.

“By refusing to use secret foreign intelligence gathering, Canada fails to do all it can to provide industry with the information needed to compete successfully in foreign markets, to say nothing of wider political matters.”[8]


Common criticisms for the establishment of a Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service are the potential costs and timelines. Some would say that such an agency would come with an enormous price tag and take a generation to reach maturity. Hence, such an initiative can be ill-afforded during a time of final restraint and deficient.

Firstly, we cannot to compare a potential Canadian Service to US agencies. The CIA is a colossal enterprise including historically the launching of satellites, drones, paranormal research and conducting paramilitary operations. A CFIS would have a much tighter focus.

“Even a small espionage service with a limited number of strategic targets, given well-trained espionage officers, tough offensive tactics, and a bit of luck, could well produce intelligence of very high value to Canada and its closest allies on matters.”[9]

It is true that establishing deep clandestine HUMINT networks takes time. However, standing up an interim capability can be achieved quickly at a reasonable cost. Some sources can be recruited on day one. It is a question of leadership, expertise, efficacy, ingenuity and concentration.


Intelligence production can start early while the organization is still building capacity. This can be achieved by deep field research, OSINT, technical collection, outsourcing, or leveraging government and industrial partnerships. There are a number of great models within the commercial intelligence and the way in which other agencies outsource collection.

A Foreign Intelligence Service has greater opportunity to pay for itself than conventional security intelligence because FI can deliver geo-political and economical intelligence, which converts into generating monetary profit while limiting financial losses.

How we go about envisioning and creating a Canadian foreign intelligence service is important. Such a service is substantively different that what already exists. The talent and expertise will not be exclusively found within the current establishment. Nor should decision-makers in the federal government limit from whom they seek counsel.


In conclusion, Canada requires a Foreign Intelligence Service to help protect national interests in a globalized competitive environment. A foreign intelligence service would need to be an independent agency with separate legislation and mandate but subject to national intelligence review and oversight.

In this discussion paper we have provided recent historical context, shown why a distributed foreign intelligence mandate has reached it s potential and highlighted systemic gaps in coverage. Foreign Intelligence, conducted abroad and principally by recruiting human sources, is fundamentally different from current missions. Emerging threats, competition and opportunities in global security environment make for a compelling case for a Canadian foreign intelligence service – one that has a unique value proposition. The common arguments against a new agency - essentially cost, timelines, risk and redundancy – are speculative. Whereas business analysis have shown opposite to be true. Experience has indicated that the cost of building a sovereign capability is far less than the price that Canadians are paying for not having one.

An advanced warning of the pandemic, which a foreign intelligence service may have been able to provide, could have saved billions of dollars and thousands of lives, paying for itself overnight.

A foreign intelligence service would not compete with, but complement other agencies. Hence, its mandate and resourcing would be tightly focused. A new service could be stood up rapidly, and cost-effectively, using near-gen technology, modern business processes, alliance and industrial partnerships, without the expense of inheriting legacy infrastructure or culture. Importantly, Canada, would be able to contribute more meaningfully to the alliance.

The challenge is more complex than many perceive, but not as unsolvable as some would have led us to believe.


Dave McMahon is the Chief Intelligence Officer for Sapper Labs

[1] That part of cyberspace that is not hardware or software. Human interpretation of and contribution to information. Human thought processes influence by cyber.

[2] A foreign intelligence service for Canada - Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute 2007

[3] This is China’s grand strategy for world domination economically and tied directly to military power and espionage.

[4] Misinformation is mistakes about the truth, disinformation is lies about the truth

[5] CFIS could get close to or infiltrate adversaries. Deploy forward in contented environments or adversarial space.

[6] IBID

[7] IBID

[8] IBID

[9] Should Canada Have a Foreign Espionage Service? - Richard Geoffrey St. John, Canadian Military Journal

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