Saturday, April 15th, 2006
Stewart Bell, National Post
April 15, 2006
Inside a bland brick building that could pass for a high school, past two security checkpoints, down a hall decorated with the office bowling trophy, a red sign hangs on a beige door.
“Restricted Area,” it warns.
Beyond the door, noisy fans whirr, cooling row after row of computers the size of refrigerators that are carrying out the most secretive and sensitive tasks of the Canadian government: hunting down the phone calls of suspected terrorists, reading their e-mails, breaking their codes and more — all in the name of national security.
This climate-controlled room in a government building in south Ottawa is the brawn of the Communications Security Establishment, the federal agency charged with defending Canada in ways that are as formidable as they are unknown.
From its headquarters near the Rideau River, the CSE operates a vast electronic eavesdropping system that works with allies in the United States, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand to analyze intelligence on foreign adversaries.
A civilian branch of the Department of National Defence, the CSE specializes in “signals intelligence,” or SIGINT, which means searching out, intercepting and analyzing electronic communications around the world that relate to threats to Canada’s security.
Canadians can be excused for being unfamiliar with the CSE. The agency was once so secret the government would not acknowledge its existence. At one time, it was not even listed in government phone books.
But it has been slowly coming out of the shadows, and the National Post was recently allowed to tour its Ottawa facilities — believed to be the first time a media outlet has ever been allowed inside.
“There’s been a willingness really since the Anti-Terrorism Act was passed just to let Canadians know who we are and what we’re doing,” said Adrian Simpson, the agency’s spokesman. “The chief feels very strongly that the Canadian taxpayer has a right to know what we’re doing here and why it’s so very important.”
Up to a point.
During a tour of a CSE building that cannot be identified, there were long pauses as an official who cannot be named was asked for examples of what the agency does. He could not get into details, he resolved.
From time to time there are hints of what the CSE is up to. Signals teams deployed in Baghdad played a role in the March 23 rescue of one British and two Canadian hostages in Iraq, for example. The agency has also saved the lives of Canadian troops in Afghanistan by intercepting details on enemy attack plans. But the agency’s work goes mostly unnoticed — which is how the CSE prefers it.
“SIGINT agencies in every country are among the most secretive of security organizations, especially since any disclosure of capabilities and methods can yield hints about targets and interceptions and thus compromise intelligence collection efforts,” said Professor Martin Rudner, who has written extensively on the subject.
The hallway leading into one of the CSE’s main bunkers is filled with stacks of boxes holding new computers and parts awaiting installation. Between fake potted plants, an antique computer shaped like a huge washing machine sits on display beneath a glass case, a reminder of how much technology has advanced during the agency’s 60-year history.
Following the Second World War, Ottawa merged two of its intelligence units to form what was then called the Communications Branch of the National Research Council. Its focus was the Soviet Bloc military.
In 1975 it was renamed the CSE and placed under the wing of the armed forces. Then came the end of the Cold War, 9/11, and suddenly terrorism became Canada’s number one national security threat.
The refocus on international terrorism has required some adjustment. At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, the CSE was only allowed to intercept foreign communications. It could not listen in on any talk that originated or terminated in Canada. If a terrorist in Pakistan was speaking with a co-conspirator in Toronto, the CSE was prohibited by law from eavesdropping. “CSE was being left behind,” then Chief Keith Coulter told a parliamentary committee last year (John Adams is now chief).
That changed in December, 2001, when Parliament passed the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allowed the CSE to listen in on foreign intelligence targets even if those communications had one foot in Canada.
“I think it’s fair to say that the focus now is very much concentrated on anti-terrorism,” Mr. Simpson said. “Up until the end of the Cold War there was one steady target and all of the intelligence agencies were focused on that, and 9/11 just changed everything and we and our partner organizations had to focus on the new reality.”
Civil liberty advocates are concerned about the expansion of the CSE’s powers and argue the agency needs closer scrutiny to make sure innocent people are not targeted.
Following revelations that President George W. Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to intercept communications in the United States, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group wrote to the parliamentary committee reviewing Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act and asked it to take a closer look at the CSE.
“We feel these powers that the CSE has are too broad,” said Warren Almand, a former solicitor-general and a member of the monitoring group’s steering committee. “And the oversight is too weak.”
He said the threats posed by terrorism “must be dealt with and they justify certain powers, but the powers should be strictly drawn so that you can’t data-mine everybody and put people on lists that are innocent.”
The CSE says it works within the law and its activities are closely monitored. The Minister of Defence is responsible for the CSE and must give written authorization to intercept any private communications. A team of lawyers from the Department of Justice is “embedded” at the CSE to provide on-site legal advice.
A commissioner, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Lamer, reviews the agency’s activities, making sure it complies with the law. CSE employees are trained on respecting privacy and rights.
The CSE is said to have the highest ratio of PhDs in government. Its staff consists of computer scientists, translators, analysts, mathematicians, engineers, and program developers, among others.
Their job: collect foreign intelligence related to security threats such as terrorism and weapons proliferation; protect government computer systems; and help law enforcement and security agencies.
But their work depends on technology, particularly an army of computers that perform more tasks on any given day than those of all of Canada’s banks combined.
In one of the CSE’s computer vaults, which has its own cooling system and power distribution units, green lights flash on blue machines lined up like gym lockers. Cool air blows up through perforations in the floor, and warm air is sucked back down.
Wires dangle out of a few of the machines like spaghetti as technicians operate on their insides. A pile of discarded 1990s-era computers fills a shopping cart, awaiting last rites.
“Basically, all these things just look like boxes,” said an official, standing amid the neat rows of humming electronics. “The important thing is what’s inside.”
The computers are engaged in four main tasks, said Prof. Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University.
They are maintaining “dictionaries” of the names and phone numbers that are being targeted, scanning the flow of telecommunications to identify messages of interest, analyzing and decrypting coded communications and collecting, sorting and retrieving data needed for intelligence products.
The CSE occupies three buildings at its headquarters complex and has space in a fourth, in addition to listening posts in Ottawa, Alert, Gander and Masset that are run by the Canadian Forces Information Operations Group, known as the “291ers.”
Two large portables have recently gone up near the CSE headquarters, an indication of the expansion the agency has been quietly undergoing. It has grown from about 1,000 employees before 9/11 to about 1,600 today.
According to Mr. Almand, despite all this the CSE has not demonstrated that it has had any tangible successes. “We haven’t heard of anybody that they’ve caught.” But that may say more about the agency’s secretive nature than its effectiveness.
Were the CSE too candid about its home runs (and those who work in the field of counter-terrorism insist there are many), terrorists would just adapt their tactics. In other words, the story of the CSE and its role in Afghanistan and the Baghdad hostage rescue might never be told.
“There may be a tremendous success but there’s no public recognition or acknowledgement,” said CSE spokesman Mr. Simpson.
“You just move on to the next thing.”