Friday, July 2, 2010


*** Hey Globe and Mail: stick to newspapers and leave the foreign influence investigations to those who know what they're talking about. MS ***


The activities of the alleged Russian spies arrested this week in the U.S. are more evocative of the TV comedy Get Smart in the 1960s than of John Le Carré’s novels, but they also invite comparison with the ambiguous but inflammatory allegations about agents of influence that Richard Fadden, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, recently made in a television interview. It is good, therefore, that Mr. Fadden has been called upon to explain his comments on Monday to the public safety committee of the House of Commons.

There is clearly nothing wrong with foreigners having conversations with Americans in the U.S. – the 11 supposed Russian agents accomplished little more – or with Canadians in Canada. They consequently collect information in their memories and sometimes in notebooks. Reporters and diplomats do so as part of their jobs, and so do friendly tourists, for the sake of pleasure and curiosity. Nor is there anything wrong with a Canadian having “quite an attachment” to another country, to borrow a phrase used in an ominous way by Mr. Fadden.

“Influence,” moreover, is an elastic word. Human beings influence each other, usually legitimately. Unfortunately, Mr. Fadden used the word vaguely in the highly charged context of espionage.

But the act of Parliament that governs CSIS may help make sense of what Mr. Fadden said. CSIS has the duty of investigating “threats to the security of Canada.” Among those threats, according to the CSIS Act, are “foreign-influenced activities that are detrimental to the interests of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive.” (The emphasis is added.)

The rather goofy behaviour of the 11 Russian operatives apparently did little damage, but included some false pretences. If this had been going on in Canada, foreign influence by itself would not have engaged CSIS, unless there was a combination of harm and deceptiveness. “The interests of Canada” is not a precise phrase, but deceit is fairly concrete, so this particular statutory definition of one class of threats adds up to a description of activities that do merit some watching.

Fortunately, CSIS is not a police force that can lay criminal charges, but keeping an eye or two on deceptive “foreign-influenced activities” is worthwhile. That does not mean that the Goethe Institute, the Alliance Française, the British Council and indeed the Confucius Institute – seemingly alluded to by Mr. Fadden – are sinister front organizations.

Some of Mr. Fadden’s remarks in his CBC interview were too broad-brush, and others too narrowly directed at small groups – most alarmingly, at provincial cabinet ministers. It is to be hoped that he can rein in his own words, and bring them inside CSIS’s mandate, when he explains himself to a standing Commons committee next week.