The Canadian military has had intelligence soldiers operating in Afghanistan for as long as it has been in the country, Canada's commander in Afghanistan told CBC News on Monday.
The comments by Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson came on the same day CBC News first reported the Canadian Forces have established a special intelligence unit to gather information on overseas missions in places like Afghanistan.
CBC obtained military documents that show the Canadian Forces are spending about $27 million over the next three years to purchase equipment for the new unit, which is actively recruiting soldiers.
Although many details about the unit are considered classified and are not being released to the public, documents show the focus of the group is "human intelligence."
Members of the unit, known as the Human Intelligence Company (HUMINT), are trained in collecting and analyzing information gathered from the wide variety of human contacts, or sources, they encounter on missions.
Thompson said military intelligence specialists are currently operating in Kandahar province, but he would not comment on the new unit.
"There's no new unit operating here," Thompson said in an interview with CBC News to be aired Monday evening on As It Happens. "We've had the same intelligence assets we've had since essentially the start of the mission."
Thompson said the specialists do simple but important work, such as talking to Afghans and reporting what they say. But Thompson said the intelligence troops don't actually recruit spies.
"Clearly, we collect human intelligence," he said. "Questioning the local population is the best way to get intelligence, but we don't actively recruit or pay agents."
Forces won't disclose details for security reasons
The new intelligence unit can recruit and oversee spy networks in foreign countries made up of local intelligence agents.
"The information gained this way is an important facet of support to operational activities, and the Canadian Forces is seeking to hone the skills of those collecting the information — by improving the skills associated with information collection, better information will be gathered," says one internal recruiting document.
The focus is to gather intelligence about the operational side of a mission, such as hunting for information that could point to Taliban bomb makers in Afghanistan. Bigger intelligence questions, such as the global hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, aren't handled by the unit.
The military is tight-lipped about the size of the unit, where its members are stationed and what equipment it uses. The military also won't confirm how much money, in addition to the $27 million for equipment, is being spent to fund the unit's activities.
"Unfortunately, other than to acknowledge that the program exists, the national defence and the Canadian Forces will not provide specific details about the program, as these are liable to have negative consequences for operations security, and the successful conduct of ongoing Canadian Forces operations," said Isabelle Moses, spokesperson for the Chief of Defence Intelligence.
Canada already does intelligence work on military missions, including what is done by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
But Wes Wark, an intelligence expert at the University of Ottawa, said it's interesting that the military has gone ahead with plans for this special foreign intelligence unit, and in a fairly secretive fashion. He said the military must have felt a need to boost the intelligence work already being done.
"Here is the military coming along and saying, 'Maybe this isn't good enough, and we're going to need a very traditional form of intelligence gathering to get a lay of the land,'" said Wark, a research professor at the graduate school of public and international affairs.
'That raises all kinds of red flags': NDP
Wark said the trouble with the newly created program could be the military's inexperience in the area of human intelligence.
"They don't really have any experience in this kind of operation and there's no form of accountability to keep a watch if things go wrong."
NDP defence critic Dawn Black said more information needs to be made public.
"We don't know, and that leaves it open to all kinds of questions," she said. "Because we don't know, that raises all kinds of red flags.
"There's never been a debate in Canada that I am aware of on running an intelligence company out of the Canadian Forces. I believe that should be something that is open to debate and security and civilian oversight," she added.