Saturday, 24 January, 2009

Canada's spy agency reaches out

Globe and mail
January 23, 2009
The triangular grey headquarters of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service sits far back from Blair road in Ottawa's east end.

The building's placement certainly does not suggest visitors are welcome. Its address will not be found on the CSIS web site or the phone book.

But Canada's spies are making an attempt to address their insular ways, inviting academics and other outside experts inside their doors to brief intelligence officers on what they know.

Without any fanfare or public notice, an international conference kicked off Thursday inside CSIS headquarters on the topic of Pakistan. The invitation list included academics and government officials from Asia, Europe, the United States and Canada.

“It's very much an experiment,” said a senior Canadian security official, in a background lecture to the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Ottawa. “We're very hopeful the experiment will be a success.”

A new “academic outreach office” has been set up inside CSIS to organize the conferences and guest speakers. Toronto Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui, a strong critic of CSIS, was brought in for one of the talks, the official said.

Specific officers have been assigned to get out and meet with Canadian academics and other plans are afoot. One would see a ramping up of CSIS's co-op program, in which university students can work at CSIS part time during their studies.

Others are expected to be more controversial. The agency is looking to give money to faculties willing to research security issues and is considering an “academic in residence program.” The later would allow Canadian academics to spend months working at CSIS for an inside look.

The official acknowledged that there is likely to be some pushback from academics, who would see such co-operation as “dancing with the devil,” yet several eager professors have already expressed interest.

Security expert Wesley Wark, who hosted the event at the University of Ottawa, said he would gladly sign up for a chance to work inside CSIS. The concern, he said, would be the need for assurances from CSIS that it would not then try to censor the resulting academic work.

“They simply would not be able to attract what I think they're after, which is real experts and senior scholars, to do this kind of thing unless there was going to be sufficient flexibility; that people could actually use that knowledge in their own research and witting,” he said.


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