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Is Canada's Global Security Reporting Program a spy agency? If not, what is it?

This Wikipedia article includes:

On June 19, 2020, the men were formally charged with spying on national secrets and providing state secrets to entities outside of China.

In the lead-up to the first high-level diplomatic talks between Chinese officials and American officials working for Joe Biden, Spavor and Kovrig's trial dates were announced. On March 19, 2021, a two-hour closed court hearing for Spavor ended with no immediate verdict and Dandong Intermediate people's court stating that it would set a date to release a decision later. Because the case involved Chinese national security law, the chargé d'affaires at the Canadian Embassy in China was denied entry to provide consular assistance. Diplomats from the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Australia, Sweden and Germany also sought access but were denied. Kovrig's trial was scheduled for March 22. It ended with the identical statement - that the verdict will be announced at an unspecified later date.

In a statement, Global Affairs Canada denied that Kovrig was involved in espionage. Kerry Buck, a retired diplomat and senior fellow at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, also rejected claims of espionage, saying that "GSRP diplomats write diplomatic reports. As with all diplomatic reports, they are read by people in Ottawa, including the CSIS. [...] In no world does this make GSRP diplomats 'spies'."

While this newspaper article states:

The GSRP is a small intelligence gathering unit of roughly 30 diplomats that was set up in the aftermath of 9/11 to provide information to collect “overt security-related information” in sensitive regions across the world.

The report focused on the work of between 2017 and 2019 and was provided to the government in 2021. It was not immediately clear if the report’s findings still apply today.

Canada said that GSRP is not a spy agency and their diplomats write diplomatic reports, but the Chinese government claim that they state secrets to entities outside of China. The National Post then claims that the GSRP is a small intelligence gathering unit that collects overt security-related information. Under Canada's own definition of spy agency, would GSRP be considered to be one?

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    My understanding of modern intelligence is that it has 3 main sources: humint, what we would traditionally call spies, signals intelligence - comms and computers. And, third, a fair bit of compiling openly available information which apparently is becoming more valuable. Would you call an analyst of the third type a spy? What about if your country has a "broad definition" of what spying is? How about if much of the gathered info is trade-related? Does China calls its equivalent staff in Chinese embassies abroad spies? Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 16:12
  • But CSIS itself is ambivalent, or bureaucratically protective of its prerogatives, nsira-ossnr.gc.ca/wp-content/uploads/GSRP_EN.pdf and flagged some concerns with adherence to Vienna conventions on diplomacy. It seems to be saying: "your (GSRP) biz is not to be spies, do a better job training your staff to stick to your lanes". Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 16:27
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    See cips-cepi.ca/2023/11/29/… An answer seems easily obtained on the internet to this question.
    – James K
    Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 17:18
  • @JamesK but that's contradicted by the more recent CSIS report. CSIS may have its reasons to "shoot down" GSRP but they are way less definitive than the opinion you cite. Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 17:51
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    One thing missing from the Q is an indication of whether Spavor/Kovrig was working for GSRP at the time of their arrest. Not anymore, AFAIK. Otherwise, they'd probably have been under diplomatic immunity. Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 17:54

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Canada apparently doesn't have a spy agency for spying on foreign soil. And the Global Security Reporting Program (GSRP) seems to be an attempt to gather some intelligence without using trained spies:

Canada's intelligence watchdog says a program that has diplomats collecting sensitive information abroad runs the risk of blowback from foreign states. The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency warns that the Global Security Reporting Program isn't adequately monitored, and has at times caused Canada's allies to confuse diplomats with spies. Global Affairs Canada runs the program by posting roughly 30 diplomats abroad to interview people such as activists, journalists and armed opposition groups.

... The program's officers are "accredited and declared diplomats" who since 2002 have collected information "overtly, through networks of government and non-governmental contacts," according to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians. It also found there was inadequate training and understanding on how to avoid breaking international rules that forbid diplomats from spying, and a lack of safeguards to protect sources facing surveillance. "There was no evidence of a consistent understanding among officers on what assurances could be offered to contacts, or if contacts fully understood what would be done with the information they provided."

... People undertaking the job think of themselves as automatically distinct from spies because they have accredited roles at diplomatic missions, the report says. But "whether the actions of the GSRP officer are 'overt' or 'covert,' and whether or not they task or pay contacts, is not determinative when assessing for an abuse of privileges and immunities" under the Vienna Convention that governs diplomacy, it says.

... He added that "authoritarian and repressive states with highly developed surveillance systems, such as Russia and China, will perceive the GSRP in accordance with their own sensitivities — not in light of the conduct of GSRP officers." Wark pointed out that Canada does not post such diplomats to Russia because of the risks involved, and it might want to avoid China, too.

A Guardian report also says something similar:

A controversial intelligence-gathering program run by Canada’s foreign affairs ministry operates in a “distinctly grey zone”, puts its officers at risk and breaches global diplomatic conventions, says a damning watchdog report. Canada’s global security reporting program (GSRP), a critical part of the foreign ministry’s security and intelligence footprint overseas, places officers in countries with “poor human rights records” including Ethiopia, India, Egypt, Turkey, Israel and China.

The program has received renewed scrutiny in recent months following reports that Michael Spavor, a Canadian jailed in China for nearly three years, was seeking a multimillion-dollar settlement from Canada’s federal government, alleging he “unwittingly” provided intelligence on North Korea to Michael Kovrig, an officer with the GSRP, who then shared that information with Canada and “Five Eyes” allies. The pair were imprisoned in China from December 2018 to September 2021 and charged with espionage.

... In addition, the watchdog warned “it was not clear if all officers understood that once they are no longer afforded diplomatic immunity, a receiving state may seek retaliatory measures against them”.

Note though that diplomats talking with activists, opposition parties and political dissidents is considered normal in a democracy, even though it may be diplomatically frowned upon by the host country. Democratic countries rarely arrest such people for spying, for meeting a citizen of their country. (What they instead do is place both of them under surveillance and monitor them for any "anti-national" activities, and act against them only if absolutely necessary for national security). This could explain why the "diplomats" of GSRP did not even realise that they may have been spying, and gathering intelligence, in their host country. (It also wouldn't be the first time an intelligence agency used unsuspecting citizens for spying.)

References:

  1. Intelligence watchdog's delayed report says Global Affairs program risks blowback

  2. Canada intelligence operation put diplomats in legal ‘grey zone’ – report

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