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Communications Security Establishment

The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) is Canada's top-secret spy agency. Amidst movies like True Lies that suggest there is an ultimate apy agency - beyond the CIA in the United States, on begins to wonder. This agency is so secret, its mere existence was not admitted until 1983 - thirty-seven years after it was created! And if CANADA has such an agency, what does the U.S. have? (!)


Overview and Brief History

The CSE is Canada's national Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) organization. SIGINT, as defined by the Canadian government, is "all processes involved in, and information and technical material derived from, the interception and study of foreign communications and non-communications electromagnetic emissions." SIGINT is restricted to foreign emissions under the Canadian government definition.

CSE began existence as the Communications Branch of the National Research Council. Authorized by an Order-in-Council, dated April 13, 1946, it was the direct descendent of Canada's wartime military and civilian SIGINT processing operations, which also had worked in close co-operation with their American and British counterparts. The CSE was officially born on September 1, 1946.

In 1947, the CSE took on the additional responsibility of serving as the Canadian government's communications-electronic security (COMSEC) agency. Prior to 1947, the government's encryption systems and keys had been provided by the United Kingdom. "This arrangement," the History of the CSE noted dryly, "did not guarantee the privacy of Canadian government classified communications." CSE continues to bear both SIGINT and COMSEC responsibilities today (the latter responsibility is now listed as the somewhat broader category Information Technology Security (INFOSEC)).

On April 2, 1975, CBNRC was transferred from the National Research Council to the Department of National Defence and its name changed to the Communications Security Establishment. At the time of its transfer, CBNRC/CSE had about 590 personnel. A major buildup during the period 1981-1990 left CSE at its current strength of about 900.


CSE's fiscal year 1998-99 budget is $110.1 million, down slightly from the $114.5 million spent in 1997-1998.

CSE appears to have weathered the end of the Cold War remarkably well. In May 1995, Mr. Woolner testified that CSE's 1995-1996 budget (then estimated at $113 million) was about ten percent lower in real dollars than its 1990-1991 budget, implying that its 1990-1991 budget was about $116 million (i.e., about $125 million in 1995 dollars). If this statement can be taken at face value, it would appear that CSE's budget remains only about 15 percent below its Cold War peak level. CSIS's budget, by comparison, is close to 30 percent below its Cold War peak.

In fact, CSE's budget almost certainly weathered the end of the Cold War even better than these figures would indicate. Woolner neglected to mention in his testimony that 1990 was the peak year for CSE's spending on "Annie," the new wing of the Sir Leonard Tilley building that was completed in 1992. The extra funding added for this project may have boosted CSE's budget by as much as 15 percent over its normal level during that year. Excluding special projects such as this, CSE's budget probably remains at or very near its Cold War peak.

This somewhat surprising conclusion is supported by the minutes of the September 1994 meeting of the Cryptologic Resource Coordination Group, which "observed that, although DND's budget as a whole is decreasing, CSE's is holding its own." This meeting also reported that CSE's budget was projected "to grow by about 7% over the next five years" (essentially enough to continue covering inflation). This plan was noted to be subject to the government intelligence review then underway, as well as DND's own program review, but the 1997-98 budget suggests that this plan remains essentially intact.


The formal mandate of CSE is a classified document, presumably approved by the Cabinet; it has never been laid out in statute. As demonstrated above, however, the general nature of CSE's mandate is not secret. A government memorandum confirms that "the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) of the Department of National Defence has been established as the Canadian National SIGINT Centre, and has been given the responsibility for providing SIGINT to meet the needs of the Federal Government." What remains secret is the extent to which the communications of Canadians are considered to fall within the SIGINT needs of the Canadian government.

The Canadian public has been told on a number of occasions that CSE's formal mandate restricts it to the collection of foreign intelligence. The government's definition of SIGINT would appear to confirm this assurance.

It is almost certainly significant, however, that the government definition of "foreign" communications has never been made public; it was deleted in its entirety from the released version of the above mentioned memorandum. Depending on the precise definition that the government uses, such communications might include:
  • any communication that originates and/or ends in a foreign country, regardless of the nationality of its participants;
  • any communication that involves foreign embassies, foreign-owned businesses, or other foreign-related activities in Canada, regardless of the nationality of its participants; and/or
  • any communication that involves at least one foreign participant.
There is reason to believe that the government's definition does include at least some of these meanings. For example, then-Solicitor General Robert Kaplan stated explicitly in his 1984 testimony that CSE could, under certain circumstances, "intercept signals that begin and end in Canada, that begin in Canada and end abroad or the reverse."

It would appear, therefore, that CSE's "foreign intelligence" mandate does permit it to intercept many types of communications that do involve Canadian participants. In fact, the Department of National Defence has admitted that CSE occasionally intercepts communications that involve or contain information about Canadians: "CSE targets only foreign communications, which, on rare occasions, contain personal information about Canadian citizens and landed immigrants." In addition, the government has confirmed that CSE maintains a data bank, "Security and Intelligence Information Files," that contains "information concerning [Canadians] identified as potential risks to national security." Nevertheless, the issue of how often and how systematically CSE can and does intercept the communications of Canadians remains unresolved.

CSE Facilities

CSE sites in Canada

SOURCE: Bill Robinson of Waterloo, Ontario.

See also
Canadian Army
Royal Canadian Navy
Royal Canadian Air Force
Disaster Assistance Response Team
Joint Task Force 2

External Links
Communications Security Establishment's Official Website
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Copyright Craig I.W. Marlatt