HALIFAX, CANADA - Senior veterans of Canada's intelligence community are publicly advocating for the country to consider whether to enter a sphere it has, until now, largely left to others - foreign espionage.
Three retired government officials, all of whom held high-ranking positions dealing with intelligence, argued in Canada's most prominent national newspaper this month that the government should explore the idea of creating a stand-alone agency akin to America's CIA or Britain's MI6.
"Has the time come for Canada to develop a capacity to gather foreign intelligence from human sources abroad? ... Perhaps it is," the three wrote in a June 11 op-ed in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
Foreign intelligence gathering has never been a priority for Canada, which enjoys the security of broad oceans to the east and west and a friendly neighbor to the south. Even the job of rooting out foreign spies on Canadian soil was long left to the vaunted Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) - better known internationally for their ceremonial red jackets and Stetson hats.
The RCMP quit that role in 1984 when Canada established the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS. But even that agency was largely limited to a counter-intelligence role, with a legislative mandate to operate "within Canada."
While CSIS does have some foreign-based personnel, most of what Canada gleans about the intentions of other governments comes from public sources, "Signals Intelligence" or electronic monitoring, and reports from its diplomatic missions.
Its primary access to so-called "human intelligence" or HUMINT - essentially spying as opposed to electronic monitoring - has been through its membership in the "Five Eyes," an intelligence-sharing cooperative that includes the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
"We contributed to what other countries did but we never felt the need to do it ourselves," explained Peter Jones, one of the authors of the June 11 op-ed, in an interview with VOA.
"There were occasional grumblings from Canada's allies that because we didn't have [a foreign intelligence] service we weren't putting enough things into the pot. I don't think that was true," Jones said.
But, he added, "I don't imagine" that creating a foreign intelligence gathering capability would do anything but improve the relationship.
Jones is a former senior policy analyst in the Security and Intelligence Secretariat of Canada's Privy Council Office, a high-level body advising the federal cabinet. His co-authors were Alan R. Jones - a retired CSIS officer who served in numerous operational and policy positions - and Laurie Storsater, who held security and intelligence positions with various government agencies.
Graham Plaster, the Washington-based CEO of The Intelligence Community Inc., a national security consulting firm, agrees that the United States would likely be pleased to see Canada develop a more robust intelligence-gathering capability.
"The U.S. benefits when our allies invest into national security capabilities," Plaster told VOA. "A new HUMINT organization in Canada, training and coordinating with U.S. counterparts, would be a strategic benefit to both nations."
Jones cautioned there are limits to what Canada might be willing to do to help its allies.
"I do foresee possible issues if some of the allies expect to be able to use Canada's [foreign intelligence] service to help them access regions or individuals they presently cannot," he said.
"While such collaboration does take place and is productive, Canada will need to think carefully about how and when it places its capabilities at the service of others whose policies in given regions are not the same as our own."
An important decision for Canada if it does decide to develop a HUMINT capability is whether it should expand the mandate of CSIS or create a completely new agency.
Former CSIS officer Phil Gurski told VOA he favors an expansion of the existing agency, arguing "it took CSIS years to come up to speed" after it was established in 1984.
But others suggest that Canada should follow the example of its intelligence-sharing allies, which for the most part segregate domestic and foreign intelligence gathering into separate agencies.
Jones said he is still uncertain which option Canada should adopt.
"I think we need to look at it," he said. "My gut feeling is we probably should think about creating a new agency. ... I'm leery about combining the mandates of different intelligence services who do different things.
"If America and Australia and Britain and others were creating their intelligence services today, maybe they would have created one combined one ... but historically that is not how it's been done," he added.
The op-ed penned by Jones and his two colleagues did not address one key question. If Canada were to go into the business of foreign espionage, who exactly would they spy on?
Jones acknowledged that Canada lacks an obvious geographical niche like its ally Australia, which contributes to the Five Eyes mainly from its principal area of operations in Asia.
But when asked what a young Canadian seeking a career in intelligence should study, he said, "I'd learn Chinese, or Russian, or Arabic. There are regions of the world that are going to be an enduring interest to Canada no matter what government is in power."