OTTAWA - The curtains at Canada's most secretive federal agency have been drawn a little tighter.
The government has quietly stopped telling Canadians about the annual priorities of the national electronic eavesdropping agency, meaning scant details of its mission that were once made public are now classified.
Communications Security Establishment Canada, with headquarters in a non-descript building in Ottawa's south end, has the dual role of monitoring foreign computer, satellite, radio and telephone traffic, as well as helping protect federal computer systems.
It has a staff of more than 2,000 — including skilled mathematicians and computer whizzes — and a budget of about $400 million.
For years, a section of the Defence Department's annual plans and priorities report spelled out the agency's priorities. In 2011-12 they included a focus on Canada's mission in Afghanistan, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, foreign espionage and interference, and the federal government's northern Canada strategy.
The report also included information about the CSE's plans for an elaborate new facility.
But that changed last November when CSE, once a wing of Defence, became a stand-alone agency that reports to the minister.
As a result, it will now produce its own plans and priorities report, performance report and annual report.
For reasons of national security, none of those documents will be published, the CSE says.
Long-time CSE watcher Bill Robinson, whose blog first noted that the CSE no longer lays out its annual priorities, called the changes a blow to transparency.
"They're withdrawing information that has been available for years. There's no clear justification for doing so," Robinson said in an interview.
"Everything about our lives is increasingly online, and this is the area that increasingly CSE is all about. It's a time when really we should be having more oversight over this agency, and more information about it."
In a written response to questions, CSE spokeswoman Christine Callahan said the agency has actually "enhanced" its public reporting through separate entries in the federal estimates on budgets and personnel, as well as a description of its main roles.
In addition, CSE will now have to produce financial information for the annual public accounts.
However, budget and personnel figures were previously available, and the new entries provide little hint of what CSE is actually doing.
For instance, the federal estimates say CSE will make "informed decisions within an improved governance framework" and promote "leadership, agility and collaborative teams that value their contributions to advancing mission objectives."
Compared with the agency's previous reporting, it's a step backward, Robinson said.
Callahan said CSE reporting requirements are "comparable to those of similar departments," such as CSIS and the RCMP.
Yet the RCMP's annual plans and priorities and performance reports are made public. And while CSIS does not release these documents, it has published annual public reports with varying regularity.
Callahan noted that the CSE's activities continue to be subject to independent, external and public review by a watchdog, the auditor general, the privacy commissioner, the information commissioner and parliamentary committees.
In his recently released annual report, CSE watchdog Robert Decary said the secret nature of intelligence organizations is such that any attempts at educating the public come up against a culture of silence that "makes one keep quiet about what is known or what could be made known."
"To paraphrase a well-worn expression, the fear that one might see certain trees is such that one is not allowed to describe the forest."
However, he said it was possible to use "simpler and more comprehensible language" — without divulging inappropriate details — to ensure that public debates are not held on false premises.
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