Four months into the global pandemic, critics are rightly asking what the government could have done better to prevent the human and economic toll we are seeing in Canada. One suggestion to improve Canada’s responses in the future has been for Canada’s security and intelligence community to broaden its mandate, creating a health intelligence priority amongst Canada’s existing priorities.
This position is misguided. Pandemics are a public health issue with national security consequences, not a national security issue in and of itself. Giving national security and intelligence agencies a health-intelligence mandate is a solution that might cause more problems than it solves, making unfounded assumptions about current intelligence tools, duplicating existing capabilities and overstating the utility of early warning to policy-makers.
Much has been made of the existence of a small, specialized unit within Canadian Forces Intelligence Command of a medical intelligence unit that sent a warning “up the chain” to senior leadership in the Department of National Defence about COVID-19.
This has been interpreted simultaneously as an intelligence failure and an opportunity for Canadian national security and intelligence agencies to begin to collect health intelligence around the world to better prepare Canada for future pandemics and to provide advice to policy-makers.
For decades, research has shown there are tremendous downsides to applying hard security approaches to public health issues, whether it is AIDS or drug addiction. Such approaches take patients and turn them into threats to be monitored.
Given that the poorest and most vulnerable communities tend to be the ones hardest hit by natural disasters and pandemics, they will be the ones that are most often put under surveillance if domestic intelligence agencies expand their mandates. Unfortunately, these marginalized populations are already likely to have the lowest levels of trust in the government, and a heavily securitized approach may be counter-productive in terms of compliance with health regulations and proactive reporting of illness.
It is critical to keep in mind that many of our intelligence capabilities were developed to be applied against non-compliant subjects such as terrorists, spies and criminals. Using these powers against largely compliant Canadians may be excessive. Are we really willing to sacrifice privacy and civil liberties for something that may have limited benefit?
A third issue is that giving national security agencies the mandate to collect intelligence on pandemics duplicates the work of existing agencies, particularly the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). If there have been problems with PHAC’s performance, the answer is not to duplicate expertise, but to ensure the agency is both scrutinized and better supported in its work.
This relates to a fourth issue, namely that although COVID-19 is a public health emergency, this does not mean there is an absence of national security issues during a pandemic. Indeed, in the United States we have seen some violent extremists use the pandemic as the basis for attack planning.
In Canada, there have been several hate crimes believed to be associated with the pandemic. Canada has also faced a heightened cyber-security threat, prompting warnings from the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) that the health sector, including hospitals, is being targeted by cyber threats at a time when it is the most stretched. Significantly, for the first time, the CSE announced it is working with its government partners to take down websites believed to be spoofing Government of Canada websites for the purpose of committing fraud.
Finally, there has been a surge of disinformation online, some of which has been tied to state actors. Adopting a health intelligence mandate would require existing resources to be re-allocated, a move that would leave existing national security threats with less coverage.
While full-scale adoption of a health intelligence mandate is unlikely to be beneficial or realistic for Canada, there may be places where public health and Canada’s intelligence community can collaborate.
There is no shortage of work for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and CSE. In this sense, it is vital that our national security agencies focus on the issues for which they are mandated rather than finding new ones. By doing so, they are performing a vitally important task: creating and maintaining, to the best of their ability, the safe spaces necessary for healthcare professionals to do their work in this pandemic.
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While full-scale adoption of a health intelligence mandate is unlikely to be beneficial or realistic for Canada, there may be places where public health and Canada’s intelligence community can collaborate. There is overlap, for instance, between public health agencies and national security when it comes to scrutinizing foreign investment, particularly from state-owned enterprises in the Canadian health sector. Such policies aim to prevent “opportunistic investment behaviour” that could damage Canada’s national interest during and after the pandemic.
National security agencies will need to rely on expertise from health agencies to identify critical resources. For their part, these agencies will need to share assessments relating to threats that have health implications with health agencies. This is a space where enhanced collaboration is likely to benefit the security of Canada. Fortunately, the framework for this is already in place.
Ultimately, it’s critical to examine what problem a health intelligence priority promises to solve. In this case it comes down to early warning of impending health crises. But we should ask ourselves what, if anything, early warning of the COVID-19 crisis would achieve.
In the case of a global pandemic, early warning might buy, at most, a few weeks of time, and Canada’s response will always be constrained by its geopolitical realities. In the case of COVID-19, it is not clear that Canada could have purchased adequate personal protective equipment within the time horizon of about six weeks.
In this sense, a better place to invest is almost certainly in preparation, and specifically in planning and supplies. Canada’s resilience to pandemics will depend more on strategic supplies and community readiness.
Finally, while Canada could adopt health intelligence as a priority and assign scarce resources to that task, it is important to remember that warnings are not always heeded and having that warning come from the intelligence community rather than PHAC would not necessarily have more influence or credibility.
In this sense, the problem could become that of inconvenience – information that fails to prompt action because it is deemed to require too much effort.
COVID-19 spread around the world in a number of weeks with devastating consequences. However, this is not evidence of an intelligence gap or an intelligence failure.
Rather, it is evidence that being forearmed is better than being forewarned. Rather than securitizing health, Canada should use a policy framework to bolster its resilience to pandemics, action that squarely falls within the mandate of PHAC and its provincial and local counterparts, and not in Canada’s security and intelligence community.
This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.
Photo: Shutterstock.com, by tsyklon