Spy Agency’s Failure to Inform Minister of “High Risk” Ops Raises Troubling Questions

Tim McSorley
3 min readNov 18, 2019


A new story from the Toronto Star detailing how the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service has failed to inform the Minister of Public Safety about “high risk operations,” raises some troubling questions.

In it, reporter Alex Boutilier outlines how new access to information documents reveal that CSIS broke the rules laid out in a ministerial directive that obliges the service to inform the Minister of Public Safety whenever they take on a “high risk operation.” The article has more details, but as far as we know, high risk operations are those that could:

  • discredit the service or the government;
  • give rise to public controversy;
  • risk human life;
  • damage Canadian domestic or international relations;
  • contravene any guidelines for CSIS management.

This breach of the ministerial directive was acknowledged in a summer 2018 letter from CSIS director David Vigneault to Minister Ralph Goodale

Why does this raise troubling questions?

First, we don’t know how many of these ‘high risk operations” there were, or when they took place.

Presumably, if these actions took place in 2017–2018 or earlier, the lack of notification to the Minister would have been flagged in a report from the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), which until this summer was the CSIS watchdog agency. But that assumes CSIS was more forthright with the review committee than it was with the minister.

As far as I know, though, we haven’t seen anything about this in past SIRC reports. So this could also mean that these operations all took place after the period that the last SIRC report was issued. This only leaves a narrow window, though, since the letter came in summer 2018, and the 2017–2018 SIRC report would have covered the first few months of that year.

Second, we also don’t know what prompted the letter. Were these operations uncovered by SIRC, with the promise that the details will be featured in the next CSIS review, prompting CSIS to come clean? The next CSIS review will coincidentally be the first from the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA). The NSIRA was created as a successor to SIRC through the National Security Act, which was adopted this past summer. The agency will release annual reviews of CSIS’ work, and also has the additional power to examine all of Canada’s national security activities.

Third, it also raises question about CSIS compliance overall. We have already seen instances of “lack of candour” towards the courts, and now a failure (or multiple failures) to notify the Minister.

The checks and balances, including the new powers of oversight and review brought in with the National Security Act, are all predicated on CSIS being honest, forthright, and timely in their reporting. Otherwise, these checks and balances become window dressing, allowing intelligence agencies to point to political oversight, as well as review agencies, as “accountability”, while continuing to carry on as they please.

The only upside here is that CSIS eventually revealed this information to the Minister of its own accord. But again, was it because of a true willingness to comply with directives — or because their actions would be found out some other way? There’s a lot we don’t know.



Tim McSorley

Writer, editor, researcher. Transplanted Montrealer in Ottawa. National Coordinator at International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group — iclmg.ca