Over the past several months, documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have produced a steady flow of fresh outrages, which have ranged from allegations that the NSA infringed upon the constitutional rights of Americans to evidence that the NSA has listened in on the private communications of friendly foreign leaders.

In addition to attracting substantial domestic criticism, the allegations have caused a string of diplomatic crises. In Spain, the U.S. ambassador was summoned after allegations emerged that the NSA had scooped up data on 60 million Spanish phone calls.[i] In Germany, evidence that the NSA had targeted the private communication of Angela Merkel elicited similar outrage, and the U.S. ambassador to Germany was promptly summoned to account for his government’s actions.[ii] Similar stories unfolded in Brazil and Mexico after evidence emerged that President Rousseff and ex-President Calderon had also been targeted by the NSA.[iii]

Although it is hardly unexpected that America’s intelligence agencies would keep tabs on the activities of foreign leaders, including those of allied countries, the level of surveillance employed in friendly nations has caused considerable outrage. The result has been significant international pushback. Condemnation has poured in from countries across the globe, including from many of the U.S.’s traditional allies. Leading this push, Brazil and Germany have begun work on a UN resolution to condemn spying on electronic communications.

Despite the international controversy, the allegations against the NSA have caused relatively little splash in Canada. Prime Minister Harper has yet to comment on the controversy, while Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has been similarly quiet.[iv] What accounts for this silence? There are a number of possible reasons. The most charitable explanation is that as a member of the Five-Eyes intelligence network—which is composed of the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand—Canada has little to be upset about. In addition to sharing signals intelligence, the members of the network have a longstanding agreement not to spy upon one another. As a result, it is possible that the U.S. intelligence community focuses relatively little attention on its northern neighbour.

This is not, however, the only possible explanation for Canada’s relative silence. Although speculative, it doesn’t seem too far fetched to suggest that Canada’s silence on the topic might be partly driven by its participation in similar types of signals collection. Canada’s eavesdropping agency, the Communications Security Establishment, has already been implicated in spying on the communications of foreign leaders at the G20 Summit Meetings in 2009. It has also been accused of spying on Brazil’s Ministry of Mining and Energy.[v] Although these accusations have since been lost in the uproar generated by other leaked documents, they do suggest that CSEC is little different than the NSA in that it collects sensitive information on friends and foes alike. By remaining silent about allegations against the NSA, Canada may be hoping that these activities continue to fly under the radar, as the international community focuses its attention on the activities of the much larger NSA. If true, Canada’s choice to remain silent may reflect a strategic choice to avoid drawing attention to its own intelligence programs, rather than a lack of concern about NSA activity.

[i] Sarah White, “Spain Summons U.S. Ambassador over Spying,” Reuters, October 28, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/28/us-spain-nsa-idUSBRE99R0AJ20131028 (accessed November 2, 2013).

[ii] “No Morsel Too Minuscule for All-Consuming N.S.A.,” The New York Times, November 2, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/world/no-morsel-too-minuscule-for-all-consuming-nsa.html?pagewanted=3&ref=international-home&_r=0 (accessed November 2, 2013).

[iii] Jens Glüsing, Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark, “Fresh Leak on US Spying: NSA Accessed Mexican President’s Email,” Speigel Online, October 20, 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/nsa-hacked-email-account-of-mexican-president-a-928817.html (accessed November 2, 2013).

[iv] Jim Bronskil, Harper an unattractive target for the NSA, intelligence expert says,” The Globe and Mail, October 25, 2012, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/harper-an-unattractive-target-for-the-nsa-intelligence-expert-says/article15090483/ (November 2, 2013).

[v] Susan Ormiston, “Canada’s spying touches nerve in Brazil,” CBC News, October 15, 2013, http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/canada-s-spying-touches-nerve-in-brazil-susan-ormiston-1.2054334 (accessed November 2, 2013).


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