Wednesday, September 16, 2009

CSIS has more in common with the CCP than you’d think

Those out there who do not understand how Chinese authorities have managed to control, censor and manufacture information within their country for so many years need look no further than a certain intelligence agency in what is otherwise a leading, mature democracy, to understand why. That agency, of course, is the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), where I worked as an intelligence officer from April 2003 until September 2005.

As I argued in Smokescreen, my book about my experiences at CSIS, one of my main disagreements with the agency was its resistance to change and different opinions. Seeing that this inflexibility fixed minds in time and prevented the organization from adapting to current (and ever-changing) circumstances — in the process allowing for great abuse of human rights — I felt it was important for someone “from the inside” to tell that story to the public. Of course, given the agreements that I signed upon joining CSIS, I could not do so while I was employed there. Two-and-a-half years after I handed my resignation, however, the book was released, and I was extremely pleased to see that CSIS had ordered copies. It was my hope that while I could not change things from within (and I made repeated, albeit unsuccessful attempts while I was there), future generations of intelligence officers who read my book would at least be somewhat more critical about the directives and information that is forced upon them from above the moment they join the service.

As expected, my book was not well received by CSIS, about which I was unashamedly critical, and some members of the larger Canadian intelligence community also took exception to some of my arguments — which is fine, as debate on intelligence matters, Canada’s role in the “war on terrorism,” and alliance with states such as the US and Israel, was what I hoped to spark with my book. Others, mostly rights activists, lawyers and members of the media (not to mention a former informant for CSIS), openly welcomed it and provided favorable reviews.

A little more than a year after the publication of Smokescreen, I released another book titled Democracy in Peril: Taiwan’s Struggle for Survival from Chen Shui-bian to Ma Ying-jeou. As the title indicates, my second book has nothing to do with CSIS or the “war on terror,” but rather focuses on Taiwan, China, and Northeast Asia, as well as the international community’s engagement of those players. Given the substantial amount of useful open-source intelligence contained in my book, added to the fact that CSIS has an obvious interest in the matter (not so much Taiwan, but certainly China), it was my belief that despite my critical book about it, CSIS would order my second book. To this end, I asked a close friend who works there to look into the matter. Her reply today confirmed my expectations and reinforces the arguments that I make about CSIS in Smokescreen:

I had an interesting response from the circus [i.e., CSIS] today when I asked them why they had [Smokescreen] and not [Democracy in Peril]. They responded that the 1st book was ordered to assess your credibility. It was decided by the ‘experts’ that your info is skewed and so they will not order it [Democracy in Peril].

So there you have it: I criticized them, so my views were “skewed.” While the second book has nothing to do with them, they nevertheless could not risk my “skewed” views infecting the young minds of their employees for a second time.

My friend continues:

I tried to make a case, but got the impression my wrists were being slapped. I’ll bet if you had not been a member [i.e., a former employee], they would have loved your work.

This is how organizations — which in CSIS’ case I likened to an “authoritarian system” — and indeed entire countries can resist change and remain monolithic in their view of the world around them. If this can occur, albeit in a limited circle, in countries like Canada, it certainly can be perpetuated in countries where a government has tentacles in every sector of society, with hundreds of thousands of brainwashed government officials and millions of party members. If organizations that operate in liberal democracies like Canada can resist change despite the tremendous pressure that exists outside, then there is every reason to doubt that, barring a traumatic event, China will liberalize and democratize of its own volition.

Who would have thought: China as an analogy for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. They can criticize me for all they want, or not order my books because their feelings were hurt. I rest my case.


Thomas said...

I am currently reading Nancy B. Tucker's "Strait Talk". Given your background, I am almost sure you have read it before. She describes indirectly several of the same problems within the US State Department, the NSC, and the White House. A few closed-minded, single-track individuals get in power and assume they are right all the time. Any other views can't even get a hearing. It is tales like this that make me hesitant to get a government job.

I am willing to wager that you have not gotten any letters of recommendation from the CSIS :-D

MikeinTaipei said...

Thomas: Yes, I did read Nancy Tucker's excellent book and enjoyed it very much. I think all governments face similar problems, some more than others, admittedly. I think that the more you deal with secrecy, the more prevalent this type of behavior will be. CSIS was bar far the worse I've seen, and sadly Canada does not have the debate about intelligence matters that has long been going on in the US.

I think it's not a bad idea to work for government for a while and to see how it operates. After doing this, one is in a better position to criticize it, while realizing how it constrains individuals. That's one disagreement I've always had with the great Edward Said, who said that academics would lose all credibility if they ever worked for government.

CSIS would not give me a letter of recommendation if I asked for one. Plus, technically, I'm not even supposed to admit that I ever worked for them. But I don't need them and can do just fine on my own.