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Secret Newsletter Shows How Canada’s Spies Deal With Facebook and Foreign Espionage

The internal newsletter of CSIS, Canada’s main spy agency, features everything from video games, to parking, to social media — and whether or not CSIS can spy on people world-wide.
Photo via the Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand

In some ways, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is a workplace just like any other. Employees complain about parking, suck up to their boss, and grumble about their pay and budget cuts.

But CSIS is Canada's main spy agency, and it operates under an intense shroud of secrecy. Taking pictures of their suburban Ottawa headquarters is technically illegal. Their employees are generally forbidden from disclosing their work to friends and family. They worry that terrorists may bomb their workplace.


VICE News got a window into that strange workplace by obtaining dozens of pages of an internal CSIS newsletter, entitled "Ask the Director," where employees asked questions and aired grievances directly to the country's top spy, CSIS Director Michel Coulombe. The documents were released under access to information laws.

The question-and-answer with the boss shows both internal confusion about exactly what the spy agency is legally allowed to do — powers broadened by two pieces of security legislation passed in the last year — and frustration from employees that their work is sometimes undervalued by Canadians.

But the most interesting revelation from the documents is about the organization's overseas work.

Before the law was updated in April 2015, CSIS was not considered a foreign intelligence service like the CIA. The range and scope of its activities outside of Canada were severely limited.

CSIS agents were generally limited to Canadian soil — either embassies or military bases worldwide — thanks to several court rulings that interpreted their role as purely domestic.

"How much longer is it expected to take to recognize service by our personnel in other DOEs [dangerous operating environments]?"

This subtle distinction seemed to have confused at least one CSIS employee.

"A broad question that comes to mind for me is the formalization of our foreign intelligence activities," an agent asked, in a heavily-redacted email, entitled "Foreign Operations and Foreign Intelligence: Understanding the Differences," where they appear uncertain of what CSIS is permitted to do overseas.


Coulombe replied: "There are clear and fundamental differences between foreign operations and foreign intelligence and it is critical that employees understand the differences."

In a federal court case in 2015, CSIS was reprimanded for arguing that it had the authority to collect intelligence overseas. The agency was employing assets from the American National Security Agency to surveil targets abroad. While the court ended the practice, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper later passed legislation to permit CSIS' overseas activities.

Related: Secret Documents Reveal Canada's Spy Agencies Got Extremely Cozy With Each Other

One employee wrote to Coloumbe, asking why their spies had not gotten the same recognition as other security agencies, wondering when CSIS's Operational Service Medals — awards for dangerous overseas operations — would be arriving, and complained that other departments, like the RCMP, had received their medals over a year ago.

"If it has taken two years to date to negotiate awarding OSMs to our personnel who served in Afghanistan (and nothing has yet been finalized)," reads the email. "How much longer is it expected to take to recognize service by our personnel in other DOEs [dangerous operating environments]?"

It's unclear what "other" dangerous environments CSIS would have worked in, as those missions are generally kept secret, but Canada is no stranger to clandestine work abroad, even if they're not acknowledged by Ottawa. After the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, for example, Canadian special forces are said to have worked on the ground to secure chemical and biological weapons and collect intelligence.


CSIS agents also operated out of Canadian bases in Afghanistan, under a program that has never formally been recognized by the government, with its agents taking part in secret detainee interrogation programs.

It's not clear whether those medals were only for Afghanistan, or elsewhere. It's never been that the medals were also awarded to CSIS agents.

"From a security perspective, vehicles around a building act as a buffer in the event of an attack."

The newsletter also included letters from employees complaining about security measures at home.

Under rules in the service, employees must leave their personal cellphones and computers at the door. One employee argued against the procedure.

"Social media, in its many forms, is essentially the new email, e.g. the CIA even has its Twitter account. Is the Service facing policy and operational risks and challenges by maintaining such an aggressive stand against its use in the workplace (and even in our private lives, e.g. Internal Security cautioning against its use)?" the employee asked. "Can we really be an innovative and in-touch work force in contemporary (and in the future) society if the organization's employees are not as in tune with the modern communications revolution?"

Related: Canadian Spies Get Spanked Again For Sharing Citizens' Data With the NSA

Other staffers thought security wasn't tight enough and fretted over possible attacks on CSIS' headquarters.


"From a security perspective, vehicles around a building act as a buffer in the event of an attack," the email read. "If such is true, I fail to understand the installation of the parking gates as it seems not only counterproductive security-wise but also fiscally irresponsible, especially considering the gates have been broken and inoperable since installation, a daily reminder of a project half-finished and/or poor decision-making."

In one exchange, an employee complained about the lack of media coverage of Coulombe's appointment as director, but added that the agency is usually "used to much worse" from the press.

The newsletters also offer insight into Coulombe's personal life. A self described "technophile" who tries to "stay current," Coulombe is eager to portray himself as a director who is at the forefront of technology. In one of the messages, he boasted about listening to music on a pair of Beats headphones and playing video games on a Playstation 4.

"I'm a bit of a technophile, so I readily agree that the latest technology and communication trends help to make our lives more efficient and unable unprecedented connectivity. For me, it's also a lot of fun to check out the latest gear," Coulombe wrote.

His dedication to the newsletter and his background as a former CSIS intelligence officer earned the admiration of his employees. Some, however, were more critical and voiced concerns about $25 million in cuts that led to the termination of bonuses for bilingual employees, the records show.


Several staffers also used the newsletter as a suggestion box, offering quick and sometimes odd ideas to improve the agency's efficiency. In one instance, an employee suggested CSIS could learn from the reality show "Undercover Boss" and that it should encourage managers to sometimes perform the same duties of a regular employee.

The idea, however, was shot down by Coulombe.

"This [suggestion] reflects the type of engaged and motivated employees we are lucky to have at CSIS and I want to encourage all employees to ask why things are done in a certain way […]" the director wrote before dismissing the proposal.

The employee is most likely not the only fan of reality TV at CSIS. An internal program aimed at gathering feedback from personnel was called "Dragon's Den," a reference to the CBC show of the same name, according to the documents.

Follow Laurent Bastien Corbeil on Twitter: @BastienLaurent