Canada won't confirm exactly what its spies were doing in Afghanistan, but it has been quietly awarding service medals for their service, according to documents obtained by VICE News. And it was dangerous.
Those medals were pinned on to the spooks' chests by Governor General David Johnston, who acts as Canada's head of state, for their work in Afghanistan.
But for much of Canada's involvement in the war-torn country, the work of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) remained strictly secret. In recent years, CSIS' work in Afghanistan has slowly come to light.
Even now, the government will only say that that CSIS agents were processing detainees and doing basic interviews with possible al Qaeda or Taliban commanders from within Canadian Forces and Afghan military bases. But these new documents, obtained under the Access to Information Act, reveal that CSIS agents may have been directly in harm's way.
A photo of the medals. (CSIS)
In 2013, the service created the Operational Service Medal (OSM), awarded specifically for "when the deployment involves a certain level of risk, threat, hardship or operational intensity," according to the regulations creating the medal.
Asked specifically what sort of work would qualify an agent for the medal, and whether processing detainees would qualify as significantly risky or intense, the spokesperson refused comment. "As you understand, we would not be able to speak to the specifics of the role played by any award recipient," they wrote.
According to the documents, the original plan was to create a Dangerous Operating Environment (DOE) Service Award, which appeared to be specific to CSIS. However, in a 2013 memo, CSIS' 'awards coordinator' wrote that "due to shifting priorities, the Service has not given out any DOE awards."
A spokesperson for CSIS confirmed to VICE News that the DOE award was "abandoned prior to implementation."
Instead, it was replaced by the more abstractly-named OSM, which is awarded through Canada's Department of National Defence.
The government has never publicly admitted that CSIS agents are eligible for the OSM, and the regulations underline that the award is intended for soldiers and police.
But according to the documents, CSIS agents are, in fact, eligible. In order to be considered for the OSM, the spy must have serviced 30 cumulative days in the region and would need to serve in "exceptional circumstances and the person must have been deployed specifically to provide that service or support on a full-time basis to the operations." It goes on to note that anything comparable to "normal duty" — such as visits or inspections — or work that is done "from the relative safety of a country distant from the theatre or area shall be excluded." Other awards can be granted for regular duty.
The September 2015 ceremony where Johnston awarded the medals was, according to an internal newsletter sent to CSIS employees marked "secret," was the first time the Governor General had visited CSIS headquarters. Not even the Governor General's official photographer was permitted to attend.
Governor General David Johnston. (CSIS)
The documents suggest that it is no small number of spies who qualify for the medal.
"The Human Resources section [redacted] has been working meticulously to capture all employees who qualify for the OSM from the time CSIS first set foot in Afghanistan. Once this backlog has been processed, future employees deploying to Afghanistan will receive the OSM after their respective rotation."
The report goes on to say that once the Afghanistan backlog has been processed, the service will start looking at CSIS agents who worked in "other Service designated Dangerous Operating Environments."
The spokesperson for CSIS would not confirm the number of OSM awards issued, writing that "we generally do not comment on specifics that speak to our operational capacity."
Precious little is known of CSIS' formal role in Afghanistan.
Asked directly what role the agency played, the spokesperson provided the following response:
"From 2002 to 2011, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) played a critical role in supporting Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan. CSIS personnel served with distinction and made significant contributions while deployed in this challenging theatre of operations. The Information collected by CSIS in Afghanistan saved lives — Canadian lives and the lives of Afghan civilians."
Up to now, the only specific part of CSIS' role in Afghanistan that was made public was its participation in processing Afghan detainees and conducting interviews of detainees and its cooperating with the Afghan intelligence service.
An inquiry into possible abuse and torture that occurred while those Afghans were detained — and Canada's knowledge of that abuse — was the subject of investigations within CSIS and the Canadian government.
Ultimately, there was little proof that CSIS or the Canadian military was involved in, or even knew of, torture or mistreatment of those detainees, but reports did conclude that more could have been done to prevent such abuses.
The first confirmed reports of CSIS' direct involvement in the war zone came from a Canadian Press report from 2010.
At a committee hearing that year, then-CSIS director Richard Fadden said he didn't quite understand the "bewilderment" over the news that his agency was operating in Afghanistan.
The CSIS flag. (CSIS)
"Our job is to collect information that the Canadian Forces, ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], and our other allies can use to save Canadian or allied lives. The only way we can do this is by communicating with people who know about potential plots to harm Canadian and allied lives. That's not doing any harm. To my mind, that's doing a great deal of good," Fadden said.
He went on to say that the intelligence collected by CSIS saved lives, but wouldn't say how.
"Yes, our job involves talking to people in Afghanistan who potentially would do harm to Canadians and to try to use that information, to provide it to both Canadian authorities and the Afghan authorities, to forestall harming Canadian and allied lives."