The position of National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister may not carry the profile of its American counterpart, but it is no less important. Created in December 2003, the position has been held by such prominent public executives as William Elliott and Margaret Bloodworth.

Marie-Lucie Morin was appointed NSA and Associate Secretary to the Cabinet in November 2008 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. She spoke with executive editor Bob Beaudoin about the NSA’s mandate and its challenge of bringing a whole-of-government perspective to national security issues.

How is your approach to the position different from that of your predecessors? Has the role evolved and, if so, how?

I have had the privilege of working closely with both Mr. Elliott and Ms. Bloodworth and recognize them as exemplary civil servants. Both accomplished tremendous amounts in their tenure as National Security Advisor. They had a very intimate knowledge and understanding of national security and intelligence issues and brought forward the policies and tools required to face modern security challenges.

For my part, I have an extended background in international affairs, including international trade. I have served in several countries including the United States, Indonesia, the United Kingdom and Russia, and was Canada’s Ambassador to Norway. As Associate Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs from December 2003 to April 2006, I built a strong familiarity with the breadth of international and domestic security and intelligence issues in which the Department of Foreign Affairs plays a role.

People sometimes ask me how my past experiences, notably in international trade, prepared me for my current responsibilities. I remind them of the clear link between the economy and national security. I would add that my experience allows me to understand the way in which various elements, both at the domestic and international levels, can have an impact on national security and intelligence issues in Canada. My background gives me tools to approach the diverse components of national security and intelligence in a fresh manner and to bring new perspectives to the table.

The role of the National Security Advisor has evolved with the security environment. Today the separation between domestic and international threats is less tangible than it was in the 1990s. An important part of my current responsibilities is now to help the government address potential outbreaks of infectious diseases, natural disasters and cyber attacks on critical infrastructure. Like my predecessors, I devote significant attention to our shared border with the United States. Unlike my predecessors, I am confronted with emerging issues such as Arctic security in the context of changing regional geography.

What are the differences (if any) with the NSA positions in other countries, in particular the United States?

First, it is important to understand that the National Security Advisor position in Canada is not a political one. Appointed by the Prime Minister, the NSA is a public servant whose role is to provide confidential, expert and non-partisan advice to the Prime Minister on issues related to national security and intelligence. In addition to my responsibilities as NSA, I was also appointed Associate Secretary to the Cabinet. As such, I support the Clerk of the Privy Council in providing advice on the appropriate structures of government and the management of issues through the Cabinet system.

Another important part of my role involves working with various federal departments (mostly the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Department of National Defence, Public Safety Canada and the Department of Justice) and agencies (including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Communications Security Establishment Canada, Canada Border Services Agency and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) to coordinate the activities of the security and intelligence community and prepare for a comprehensive government response in case of national emergencies.

In the United States, my most immediate counterpart is Dennis C. Blair, the Director of National Intelligence. He serves as the head of the intelligence community, while also overseeing and directing the implementation of the National Intelligence Program. He is the main advisor to the President, the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council for intelligence matters related to national security.

In the United Kingdom, the intelligence machinery is jointly led by the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, who is also the Head of Intelligence Assessment, and by the Prime Minister’s Security Adviser and Head of Security, Intelligence and Resilience. In Australia, there is a similar double-headed structure with the National Security Advisor and the Director General of the Office of the National Assessment sharing national security and intelligence responsibilities.

As the person responsible for advising the Prime Minister on security matters, how do you ensure that this represents a whole-of-government approach?

The principal government stakeholders in security and intelligence work together through an interdepartmental committee structure to identify challenges and propose policies and practical solutions to address them. One of the lessons of the September 11, 2001 attacks was the importance of coordinated action. I chair a number of deputy minister committees that ensure that the Canadian security and intelligence community shares threat perceptions and works within applicable legislative authorities and mandates.

Given the different cultures in the other departments with respect to security, how do you bring all of them together in a cooperative manner?

The key to efficient work at the interdepartmental level is to agree on the nature of the security threats the country faces and identify where our collective priorities lie. Naturally, each department and agency has a unique culture and each implements their priorities according to distinct mandates and authorities. To date, I must say that it has not been difficult for me to work with colleagues in other departments and agencies. I think we share the desire to provide the best advice possible on security issues to government. There is a recognition that the resources available to security and intelligence in Canada need to be used in a manner that enables us to make the most of what we have and to find efficiencies without compromising safety and security.

From a government perspective, I would say that the most difficult challenge is not so much to deal with the different departmental cultures, but rather to deal with the complexity of the security challenges in a rapidly and constantly evolving global environment.

Does your role include both identifying security concerns and then developing strategies to deal with them? What is the role of the departments?

In the Canadian government, the process of identifying the main security issues is not a rigid one. Through its central agency role, the Privy Council Office often takes the lead in identifying emerging issues where there is no clarity on which department is the lead. On other occasions, individual departments or agencies identify new priorities on which action will require the engagement of many departments. Having identified needs, requirements and gaps, I lead the community in the development of security and intelligence priorities, and monitor their implementation on an ongoing basis. The Privy Council Office supports different government structures in developing strategies to meet priorities which may entail the preparation of issues for decision at Cabinet.

Does your role involve setting specific security priorities for the government? If so, how is this accomplished?

The Government of Canada’s intelligence priorities are set annually by Cabinet, as required in the CSIS Act and the National Defence Act. I play a key role in coordinating advice to Cabinet on the establishment of these priorities. On an ongoing basis I monitor the implementation of the priorities throughout the intelligence community, which allows for reporting back to Cabinet on performance and results.

Do you liaise with other countries? How is this done?

Extending Canada’s security and intelligence relations with our international partners is an important part of my work. Just a few weeks after taking over the National Security Advisor position, I visited counterparts in various countries to build relationships and continue work on areas of mutual interest. I also receive them when they visit Canada. These exchanges are a reflection of the globalization of threats, and the importance of working together across continents to maximize the effectiveness of our national security apparatus.


An interview with Marie-Lucie Morin