From my origins as a private soldier and combat intelligence operator in the infantry, to master warrant officer in the Canadian Forces Intelligence Branch, my career progressed through operational employment in all three of the largest military intelligence disciplines: imagery intelligence, human intelligence, and signals intelligence.
To be employed within those three disciplines, which are aptly viewed by many as the “Holy Trinity” of the intelligence community, I held a TOP SECRET SPECIAL ACCESS security clearance that only approximately .01 percent of the population hold.
Although a Level III TOP SECRET security clearance is not all that uncommon in the upper echelons of government or the military, the SPECIAL ACCESS caveat is the variable that ensures that the number of recipients, or “holders,” are kept in check. To the vast majority of the population, TSSA (as it was commonly known in the Branch), and the incumbent .01 percent, represent a world that is literally both unknown and unknowable.
To put it in perspective, the .01 percent of the population who hold a TSSA security clearance includes such luminaries as the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of National Defence, the Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, among others. Conversely, the vast majority of politicians in both the upper and lower houses of Parliament, and virtually all members of the public service, are excluded from the “.01 Percent Club.”
(The .01 Percent Club is an unofficial title; a tongue-in-cheek variation of the expression that is frequently used in the media to refer to the wealthiest “one-percent” of society.)
It’s a very exclusive club for a good reason: it operates on a strict need-to-know basis. When an individual leaves the position for which SPECIAL ACCESS was a requirement—especially in the case of politicians and other appointments that are subject to frequent change—they are de-indoctrinated, and they lose both the authorization and the access. It’s in this manner that the number of TSSA-holders remains relatively constant over time.
I know this because I’ve seen the names of the aforementioned luminaries printed alongside my own in the National Special Centre Registry at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. As a good illustration of the size of the .01 Percent Club, when the NSC Registry was produced in hardcopy it was no larger than a half-inch binder or notebook that you might find in any student’s backpack—and just as easy to overlook, if you didn’t know what it was.
I think most people would agree that those with a legitimate need-to-know should have access to all of the intelligence that is available in order to make informed decisions that will enable them to protect Canada and Canadian interests—hence the need for a TSSA security clearance and the access it provides. After all, it’s those working in security and intelligence who are providing the vital indicators and warnings necessary to keep the country safe and secure in an increasingly volatile and fragmented world. That being said, since our tax dollars pay their salaries and fund their agencies and activities, it’s not unreasonable for any citizen to ask: Just who exactly are these people…and why should we put our trust in them?
Given the popular mythology and misconceptions surrounding the intelligence establishment that have been perpetuated in the media for years, the answers to those questions may not be as straightforward, or as reassuring, as people might think.
In fact, some of those who were bestowed with a TSSA security clearance have been proven to be entirely undeserving of the levels of trust, responsibility, and professionalism that are expected of someone who has access to such highly sensitive material. In extreme cases, a few individuals have even been proven to be dangerous; to the extent that they were a threat to both the national interest and the lives of their fellow citizens and those of our allies.