OTTAWA—The head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service quietly told a crowd of insiders he’s worried about North Korea and Iran surreptitiously trolling Canada for components to build an atomic bomb.
In a speech to academics and former intelligence officials, CSIS director Dick Fadden spoke of the spy service’s “active investigations” of people trying to procure nuclear materials.
The threat of weapons of mass destruction is an “area where we have to worry far more than we did not too long ago,” Fadden said.
“North Korea and Iran being people that we worry about the most.”
Fadden made the unusually candid comments in a previously unreported — and still partly secret — address to a late May gathering in Ottawa of the International Association for Intelligence Education.
The CSIS director also elaborated on his concerns about foreign interference in Canadian politics, as well as the threat of cyberterrorism. In addition, Fadden mused aloud on whether simply jailing homegrown terrorists is a real solution to the problem of radicalization. And he told the audience India has more influence in Afghanistan than Canada and its major coalition partners combined.
Fadden said Canada seems to have “more than our fair share” of foreign interference.
“People who have an ethnic or cultural connection with another country, they are recruited by representatives of their governments and are sort of injected into our political system. It’s a growing problem,” he said.
“They start even at the municipal and the state or provincial level in the hopes that they will eventually make their way up to positions of importance.”
The speech came two months after a Toronto appearance in which Fadden first expressed his worries about foreign influence over politicians, and took place less than a month before he reiterated those concerns in a television interview.
Fadden strongly hinted in the June interview that China was trying to manipulate provincial and municipal Canadian officials, triggering a wave of outrage from critics who said his remarks left a cloud of suspicion over an entire community.
It’s surprising that Fadden has repeatedly stressed the perceived threat from foreign agents of influence, said Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto historian who specializes in intelligence. “I remain kind of dumbfounded by this idea that this is a priority problem for CSIS.”
The Canadian Press recently obtained a transcript of Fadden’s unpublicized May 26 remarks to the Ottawa conference under the Access to Information Act. CSIS withheld some portions considered too sensitive to disclose despite the fact several dozen people, including many teachers and intelligence contractors from Canada and the United States, were in attendance.
The CSIS director said he had to be careful about referring to specific countries.
“Are there any media in the room?” he asked. “OK, so it’s no great big deal, but I prefer not seeing myself on the front page of the Globe and Mail if I can avoid it.
“My staff had prepared a couple of speeches which I decided, to their horror, that I would actually say what I thought, which is not always wise in my business,” Fadden said, drawing laughter.
The cover page of the 44-minute speech is marked For Internal Information and Research Use Only.
One person who attended the speech declined to discuss details, saying the address was delivered under the Chatham House rule — strictly on background, not for attribution to Fadden.
“We have … active investigations of people who are trying to find precursor nuclear material in Canada,” said Fadden, calling it “a very complicated undertaking.”
“It’s an area where some technical and scientific expertise is very useful,” he said.
“I would hope that people could be encouraged, those with a scientific background, to go into intelligence and security, more than they have in the past.”
In July, a Toronto man was convicted of trying to ship nuclear-related items to Iran after being charged in 2009.
Asked for an update on the probes mentioned by Fadden, service spokeswoman Isabelle Scott said, “CSIS does not discuss any specific operational issues or methodologies relating to its intelligence investigations.”
The threat to North American computer systems from hackers bent on cyberterrorism is “much more worrisome than it was even five or 10 years ago,” Fadden said.
He stressed the complex, global nature of extremism and argued for fresh approaches, saying newcomers are “not always happy with the way we organize our societies and we haven’t come to grips with that.”
“We’ll keep finding people who want to do these nasty things and we’ll prosecute them and put them in jail,” Fadden said. “But this reinforces, to a considerable degree, the societal disconnect that causes them to go that route in the first place.”
A predominant theme of the spy director’s remarks was the need to ensure a better grasp of history as CSIS deals increasingly with unfamiliar cultures.
Fadden, who visited Afghanistan earlier this year, suggested to the audience that only recently did western allies collectively realize that India was a primary player in the war-torn country.
“They have more influence. They have more connections. They have more anything and everything with Afghanistan than any of the rest of us combined.”
Mindful that many teachers were present, Fadden lamented that the people CSIS hires out of school “can’t seem to write.”
“The essence of what we do is to be able to communicate what we find, either because we want to inform government or we want some form of executive action taken. And if we can’t communicate that clearly and unambiguously, we’re not doing our jobs.”