Communications Security Establishment

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Communications Security Establishment
110 px
Badge of the Communications Security Establishment. The Latin motto reads "providing and protecting information."
CSE new headquarters in Ottawa
Agency overview
Formed 1946
Preceding agency
Headquarters Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Employees 1,900 (approx.)
Annual budget $829 million (2014-15)[1]
Minister responsible
Agency executive
  • Greta Bossenmaier, Chief
Sir Leonard Tilley Building, the old headquarters of the CSE

The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) (French: Centre de la sécurité des télécommunications) (CST), formerly called the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), is the Canadian government's national cryptologic agency. Administered under the Department of National Defence (DND), it is responsible for foreign signals intelligence (SIGINT) and protecting Canadian government electronic information and communication networks. The CSE is accountable to the Minister of National Defence through its deputy head, the Chief of CSE. The Minister of National Defence is in turn accountable to the Cabinet and Parliament. The Agency has recently built a new headquarters and campus encompassing 83 acres (34 ha). The new headquarters totals a little over 1.2 million square feet (110,000 square metres) and is adjacent to CSIS.[2]


The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) was established in 1946 as the Communications Branch of the National Research Council (CBNRC), and was transferred to the DND in 1975 by an Order in Council. The cover was broken by the CBC TV documentary "The Fifth Estate: The Espionage Establishment."[3] The origins of CSE can be traced back to the Second World War where the civilian organization worked with intercepted foreign electronic communications, collected largely from the Canadian Signal Corps station at Rockcliffe airport in Ottawa. CSE also worked with CFS Leitrim (Canadian Forces Station Leitrim), located just south of Ottawa, which is Canada's oldest operational signal intelligence collection station. Established by the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals in 1941 as 1 Special Wireless Station and renamed Ottawa Wireless Station in 1949, CFS Leitrim acquired its current name when the Supplementary Radio System (SUPRAD) was created in 1966. In 1946, the station's complement was 75 personnel. The current strength (2005) is 450 military personnel and 28 civilian employees. This unit successfully decrypted, translated, and analyzed these foreign signals, and turned that raw information into useful intelligence reports during the course of the war.

CSE and the information it gathered and shared was secret for 34 years when, on January 9 1974, the CBC television documentary entitled "The Fifth Estate: The Espionage Establishment" ( produced by William Macadam and research by James Dubro) focused on the organization, resulting in an outcry in the Canadian House of Commons and an admission by the Canadian government that the organization existed.[4] CSE is now publicly known, and occupies several buildings in Ottawa, including the well-known Edward Drake Building and the neighbouring Sir Leonard Tilley Building.

During the Cold War, CSE was primarily responsible for providing SIGINT data to the Department of National Defence regarding the military operations of the Soviet Union. Since then, CSE has diversified and now is the primary SIGINT resource in Canada. The CSE also provides technical advice, guidance and services to the Government of Canada to maintain the security of its information and information infrastructures.

In early 2008, in line with the Federal Identity Program (FIP) of the Government of Canada, which requires all federal agencies to have the word Canada in their name,[5] CSE adopted the applied title Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) or (French: Centre de la sécurité des télécommunications Canada) (CSTC). Since mid-2014, the organization has used its legal name (Communications Security Establishment) and initials (CSE) on its website and in public statements. “More than twenty years after its creation, CSIS is a vastly different organization from the one that existed in 1984. The transition from a law-enforcement model to one focusing on intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism was done in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”[6]

Examination Unit

The Examination Unit was established on June 1941 as a branch of the National Research Council of Canada. At that time the main station for the unit was a house near the Prime Minister's Laurier Avenue residence in Sandy Hill, Ottawa. The unit chose this location because they felt it would draw no suspicion to the enemies. The original mandate of the Examination Unit was to intercept the communications of Vichy France and Germany. Its mandate later expanded to include interception and decryption of Japanese communications after Japan entered World War II. The unit was estimated to have had 45 staff members.

In September 1945, U.S. president Truman declared that it was vital that peacetime signal intelligence (SIGINT) operations be carried out. Canadian authorities came to the same conclusion in December of that same year. For this reason, the Examination Unit was renamed the Communications Branch.[7]


Unique within Canada's security and intelligence community, the Communications Security Establishment Canada employs code-makers and code-breakers (cryptanalysis) to provide the Government of Canada with information technology security (IT Security) and foreign signals intelligence services. CSE also provides technical and operational assistance to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and federal law enforcement and security agencies, including the Canada Border Services Agency and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority.

Signal intelligence

CSE’s SIGINT program produces intelligence that responds to Canadian government requirements. At CFS Leitrim, the main military SIGINT facility in the south end of Ottawa, the establishment collects foreign intelligence that can be used by the government for strategic warning, policy formulation, decision-making in the fields of national security and national defence, and day-to-day assessment of foreign capabilities and intentions. The station at Leitrim specializes in intercepting electronic communications to and from embassies in Ottawa. Other Canadian military SIGINT facilities are located at: CFB Gander Newfoundland with a detachment from CFS Leitrim, CFS Masset, BC (under remote control from CFS Leitrim) and CFS Alert, Nunavut.

The success of this process is founded on CSE’s understanding of the leading-edge technologies used by the global information infrastructure. CSE relies on its closest foreign intelligence allies, the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand to share the collection burden and the resulting intelligence yield. Canada is a substantial beneficiary of the collaborative effort within the partnership to collect and report on foreign communications.

During the Cold War, CSE’s primary client for signals intelligence was National Defence, and its focus was the military operations of the then Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, Government of Canada requirements have evolved to include a wide variety of political, defence, and security issues of interest to a much broader range of client departments.

While these continue to be key intelligence priorities for Government of Canada decision-makers, increasing focus on protecting the safety of Canadians is prompting greater interest in intelligence on transnational issues, including terrorism.

Code breaking equipment

CSE code breaking capabilities degraded substantially in the 1960s and 1970s but were upgraded with the acquisition of a Cray X-MP/11 (modified) supercomputer delivered to the Sir Leonard Tilley building in March 1985 and the hiring of code breaking analysts. It was, at the time, the most powerful computer in Canada. In the early 1990s, the Establishment purchased a Floating Point Systems FPS 522-EA supercomputer at a cost of $1,620,371. This machine was upgraded to a Cray S-MP superserver after Cray acquired Floating Point Systems in December in 1991 and used the Folklore Operating System supplied by the NSA in the US.[8] These machines are now retired.

Little information is available on the types of computers used by the CSE since then. However, Cray in the US has produced a number of improved supercomputers since then. These include the Cray SX-6, early 2000s, the Cray X1, 2003 (development funded in part by the NSA), Cray XD1, 2004, Cray XT3, Cray XT4, 2006, Cray XMt, 2006 and Cray CX1, 2008. It is possible that some of these models have been used by the CSE and are in use today.

IT security

Formerly known as communications security (COMSEC), the CSE’s IT security program grew out of a need to protect sensitive information transmitted by various agencies of the government, especially the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), DND, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). As a result of this critical and urgent need, the IT Security program’s strategic stance has made possible a shift to that of a predictive nature allowing the program to provide relevant knowledge based upon sound practices and forward looking solutions.

CSE’s IT Security Program has earned highly valued global respect and a reputation of technical excellence. It now extends its expertise past its traditional technical clients to those within the Government of Canada who are responsible for the formulation and implementation of policy and program managers, and is committed to ensuring cyber networks and critical infrastructures are trustworthy and secure. CSE also conducts research and development on behalf of the Government of Canada in fields related to communications security.


In December 2001 the Canadian government passed omnibus bill C-36 into law as the Anti-terrorism Act. The new act amended portions of the National Defence Act and officially recognized CSE's three-part mandate:

  • To acquire and use information from the global information infrastructure for the purpose of providing foreign intelligence, in accordance with Government of Canada intelligence priorities.
  • To provide advice, guidance and services to help ensure the protection of electronic information and of information infrastructures of importance to the Government of Canada.
  • To provide technical and operational assistance to federal law enforcement and security agencies in the performance of their lawful duties.

The Anti-Terrorism Act also strengthened CSE's capacity to engage in the war on terrorism by providing needed authorities to fulfill its mandate.

CSE is forbidden, by law, to intercept domestic communications. When intercepting communications between a domestic and foreign source, the domestic communications are destroyed or otherwise ignored (however, after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, CSE's powers expanded to allow the interception of foreign communications that begin or end in Canada, as long as the other party is outside the border and ministerial authorization is issued specifically for this case and purpose[9]). CSE is bound by all Canadian laws, including the Criminal Code, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Privacy Act.


The Office of the Communications Security Establishment Commissioner (OCSEC) was created on June 19, 1996, to review CSE's activities for compliance with the applicable legislation, accept and investigate complaints regarding the lawfulness of the agency's activities, and to perform special duties under the 'Public Interest Defence' clause of the Security of Information Act.[10] Once a year, the Commissioner provides a public report on his activities and findings to Parliament, through the Minister of National Defence.

As of 2013, there have been six Commissioners:

New Facilities

With the rapid expansion in the number of CSE personnel since the 9/11 attack in the US, the CSE has built new facilities. A new C$1.2 billion,[12] 72,000 sq. m. facility has been built in the eastern part of Ottawa, immediately west of the headquarters building for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Construction began in early 2011 and was completed in 2015. Plans indicate that there is a secure physical connection between the two buildings allowing for the passage of personnel between them.[13]

Communications data

In Proceedings of the Canadian Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence, CSE Chief John Adams, indicated that the CSE is collecting communications data when he suggested that the legislation was not perfect in regard to interception of information relating to the "envelope".[14]


Under the 1948 UKUSA agreement, CSE's intelligence is shared with the United States National Security Agency (NSA), the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the Australian Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) and New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). Along with these services from the United States, the UK, New Zealand and Australia, CSE is believed to form the ECHELON system. Its capabilities are suspected to include the ability to monitor a large proportion of the world's transmitted civilian telephone, fax and data traffic. The intercepted data, or "dictionaries" are "reported linked together through a high-powered array of computers known as ‘Platform’.[15]


A former employee of the organization, Mike Frost, claimed in a 1994 book, Spyworld, that the agency eavesdropped on Margaret Trudeau to find out if she smoked marijuana and that CSE had monitored two of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's dissenting cabinet ministers in London on behalf of the UK's secret service.[16]

In 1996, it was suggested that CSE had monitored all communications between National Defence Headquarters and Somalia, and were withholding information from the Somalia Inquiry into the killing of two unarmed Somalis by Canadian soldiers.[17]

In 2006, CTV Montreal’s program On Your Side conducted a three-part documentary on CSE naming it “Canada’s most secretive spy agency” and that “this ultra-secret agency has now become very powerful”, conducting surveillance by monitoring phone calls, e-mails, chat groups, radio, microwave, and satellite.[18]

In 2007, former Ontario lieutenant-governor, James Bartleman, testified at the Air India Inquiry on May 3 that he saw a CSE communications intercept warning of the June 22, 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 before it occurred. Two former CSE employees have since testified that no CSE report was ever produced.[19]

In 2013, a coalition of civil liberties associations launched a campaign directed against the government's perceived lack of transparency on issues related to the agency, demanding more information on its purported domestic surveillance activities.[20]

Further criticism has arisen surrounding the construction costs of the agency's new headquarters in Ottawa. The project is slated to cost over $1.1 billion CAD, making it the most expensive government building in Canadian history.[21]

See also


  3. broadcast Jan 9, 1974, produced by William MacAdam, researched by James R. Dubro.
  4. "Information Kit". Communications Security Establishment Canada. 2012-12-06. Retrieved 4 April 2013. In 1974 the television program "The Fifth Estate" broadcast an exposé of Canadian involvement in signals intelligence. The program revealed the existence of the hitherto low-profile CBNRC, and explored the nature of its signals intelligence program and its US partners. The Fifth Estate's revelations were raised in the House of Commons over the next week. As a result of the unwelcome publicity, the government soon transferred Canada's SIGINT and Communications Security organization to the Department of National Defence portfolio, and renamed it the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Federal Identity Program - Programme de coordination de l'image de marque
  6. Service, Government of Canada, Canadian Security Intelligence. "History of CSIS". Retrieved 2015-12-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Rosen Philip (September 1993). "THE COMMUNICATIONS SECURITY ESTABLISHMENT - CANADA'S MOST SECRET INTELLIGENCE AGENCY". Depository Service Program. Government of Canada Publications. Retrieved March 5, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. CSEC : Parliamentary Accountability
  10. OCSEC Mandate
  11. "News Release - New Commissioner of the Communications Security Establishment Canada Appointed". 2013-10-09. Retrieved 2013-10-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Defence Industry Daily, DID » Logistics & Support » Bases & Infrastructure » Canada’s CSE SIGINT Agency Building New Facilities, 10 jun 2009
  14. Issue 15 - Evidence Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence April 30, 2007
  15. Rudner, Martin. (2007). "Canada's Communications Security Establishment, Signals Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism". Intelligence and National Security: 22(4) pp. 473-490
  16. Morris, Nomi (1996). "Inside Canada's most secret agency." Maclean's: 109(36) pp. 32-35
  17. Desbarats, Peter. "Somalia cover-up: A commissioner's journal", 1997
  19. "I warned RCMP days before Air India disaster: Bartleman". CBC News. May 3, 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Inside Canada's top-secret billion-dollar spy palace". CBC News. October 8, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

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