Public health can’t be severed from the security mandate of Canada’s security and intelligence agencies.

When government assesses threats to security and our capacity to address them, we look to intelligence. There are many dimensions of such intelligence, such as cyber, border, transportation, international and public health security.

In 2004, the Government of Canada published its first national security strategy, Securing an Open Society: Canada’s National Security Policy. It is remarkable that until then, we did not have one. However, in response to 9/11 and the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, security and intelligence went through a bit of a rebirth. When Hugh Segal was president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) in the late ’90s, he instituted a research program titled “National Security and Military Operability”. When I became president of IRPP in 2006, I instituted a program of research on Security and Democracy. We published eight publications looking at the nexus of anti-terrorism and human rights.

The 2004 policy was, of course, much more comprehensive than we were in our publications. It set out to address six key areas: intelligence, emergency management, public health, transportation, border security, and international security. It’s been updated several times, with the 2015 version providing a rationale that states that: “The increase in terrorist acts and the threat of rapid, globalized spread of infectious disease all challenge our society and the sense of security that is so critical to our quality of life.”

Should security and intelligence agencies in Canada include global monitoring? It is a question that has been debated in the pages of Policy Options. Wesley Wark argues that a “health intelligence” mission is vital for Canada in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Stephanie Carvin and Jessica Davis say that broadening Canada’s security mandate to include health could create more problems than it solves.

It’s possible that global monitoring might be a bridge too far. As a country with a small, open economy and society, we should focus not on monitoring, but on what we can contribute to global security with those things at which we can excel. Canada does, however, need to take public health and disease challenges seriously as a security issue.

The notion of a health intelligence mission is crucial to addressing the fundamental role of government to keep its citizens safe. Security is dependent on intelligence. And public health is dependent on health intelligence.

It’s been argued that many of our intelligence capabilities were developed to be applied against non-compliant subjects such as terrorists, spies and criminals, and that using these powers against largely compliant Canadians could be excessive. But viruses are non-compliant, creating public health challenges. Security depends on good health.

Yes, security and intelligence agencies should focus on the mandate they were intended for. But to sever public health from that security mandate is misguided.

To say that pandemics are public health issues with national security consequences rather than the reverse misses the point. Pandemics are fundamentally about security. Of course, they are public health issues. But it is not simply consequential that they touch on national security and rely on intelligence. Rather they are fundamentally about security of the person, the public and the population.

The US National Intelligence Council, which is comprised of the 17 national security agencies, has published its annual National Intelligence Estimate since the 1950s. It should come as no surprise that as early as January 2000, the NIC published its National Intelligence Estimate: The Global Infectious Disease Threat and Its Implications for the United States.

Since 2004, the National Intelligence Council has identified virus pandemics as a significant national security threat, as Canada did in our National Security Strategy. Moreover, the council noted that the single greatest threat to globalization is an influenza-like virus similar to the 1918 Spanish flu. Since 2004, the council has used its National Intelligence Estimates to warn of the threat of pandemic disease.

It is unhelpful to debate whether security and intelligence agencies’ mandates should include public health threats or not. Focus instead on the fundamentals of why we have intelligence and security agencies. They are there to protect us from threats to our security. They do that by using intelligence, mobilizing intel and using it in policy-making.

The Public Health Agency of Canada is a user of security intelligence. The security and intelligence agencies are best positioned to produce and assess it. In so doing, they assist the agency by providing intelligence, assessments, and security planning for public health threats.

This does not mean they are to set aside the other elements of their mandates, be it bilateral, multilateral or global security, intelligence production and assessment, anti-terrorism, anti-cyber security threats or anti- anything else. Rather dedicating themselves to helping federal and provincial agencies by gathering intel, assessing it and showing them how to use it can improve national security immeasurably.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

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