Canada’s Black Chamber

An account of early Canadian code breaking is mostly accurate but very dry.

Cautious Beginnings: Canadian Foreign Intelligence, 1939–51 is a history of the bureaucracy created by the Canadian government to acquire “foreign intelligence.” Kurt F. Jensen, an intelligence specialist in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade before joining Carleton University’s Department of History, rightly claims that his book, an outgrowth of his Carleton dissertation, is “the first comprehensive account, based on primary sources, of the birth and postwar reorganization of Canada’s foreign intelligence community.” As such, it is the first intensive history of the origins of Canada’s black chamber. Dr. Jensen avoids the term “black chamber” in his text, and we must learn from Wikipedia rather than from him that it is a generic term used to describe the agencies created by governments over the last five centuries to crack the secret code messages of their rivals and to devise undecipherable codes for themselves. Jensen justifies what inhibition has prompted him to exclude from his study a term so relevant to it by citing the fact that the Canadian government never admitted until 1995 “that Canada was engaged in ‘the collection of foreign signals intelligence’. ”

Jensen defines foreign intelligence as “information relating to the capabilities, intentions or activities of foreign states, persons, corporations or organizations.” The first thing we are told about it, in the introduction, is that “Canada’s foreign intelligence activities are not of long duration, having only truly begun with the onset of war in 1939.” This assertion is repeated in the first chapter, “Foreign Intelligence at the Beginning of the War,” where it is stated that by September 1939 Canada did not possess “a foreign intelligence capability. None existed within the sphere of foreign policy making.”

These statements are erroneous. Canada’s foreign intelligence bureaucracy originated during the 1870s and ’80s with the sending of emigration and trade agents to foreign countries. It was developed further by the creation of a foreign ministry in 1909 and, following the opening of diplomatic missions in Washington, Paris and Tokyo, the appointment of foreign service officers for whom former commercial agents became assisting trade attachés. In 1929 the first secretary at Tokyo undertook a major intelligence-gathering journey in Japan’s existing and future empire in Northeast Asia, resulting in a report to the Department of External Affairs that was, as he wrote, “of immense value when the Manchurian powder keg exploded just over one year later.” That is but one of countless examples demonstrating that Canada was equipped with a foreign intelligence capability prior to 1939.

Jensen, I feel sure, knows all this. Indeed, he goes out of his way to remind us that “one of the most valuable intelligence tools is the activity of diplomats stationed abroad.” It is simply beyond me to understand why he fails to acknowledge, and even denies, the existence of such activity prior to 1939. This oversight, while baffling, fortunately does not damage the remainder of his painstaking and pioneering research.

Chapter 2 is devoted to “the Examination Unit,” the first “of the instruments of foreign policy collection that remained in place for the duration of the war” (more on this later). The remaining chapters deal with the wartime exchange of intelligence within the North Atlantic triangle; Canadian human intelligence, or HUMINT (as distinct from signals intelligence, or SIGINT), notably by means of POW interrogation (uninhibited by the Geneva Conventions); the decision to forego a Canadian spy network abroad; Canadian SIGINT activity in the United States during 1942–43, monitoring “commercial cable, wireless, telephone and radio traffic” in the operation known as “Mousetrap”; sea warfare SIGINT against German U-boats in the North Atlantic; efforts, largely unavailing, to carve out a similar role in the Pacific War; further work by an expanded Examination Unit, which until November 1942 was busily intercepting and analyzing diplomatic traffic between Vichy and Ottawa and thereafter deeply into “high-grade, coded, Japanese messages”; post-war intelligence structures, in which again no place was found for a Canadian spy network; and, finally, the post-war (until 1951) SIGINT community. An exemplary glossary (from “Arlington Hall” to “‘Z’ Work”) is a much-needed guide to this often complex and esoteric material. There are, alas, no pictures.

What Jensen assembles from these varied and fascinating topics is a case history of the bureaucracy of espionage. With such a subject ought we not to have a thriller in our hands? Fuhgeddaboudit!

Jensen tells his complicated story on a minute scale. Historians of Canadian public administration and of Canadian foreign policy should welcome its detailed approach. Non-specialists may be put off by it. Cautious Beginnings—the in-your-face diffidence of the title begins to grow on you after a while—is not a reader-friendly book. It is both dense and drab, its dramatis personae deprived of both drama and personality. Instead of pageantry we are offered genealogy—a lineage of committees and subcommittees, departments and offices, agencies and bureaus. His chapters are digests of their paperwork—dispatches, letters, telegrams, historical raw material of the kind in which a file clerk writes something and another writes something back. True, Jensen does not call them file clerks: he calls them “a handful of exceptional individuals” and lauds their “vision and conceptualization.” But he depicts them playing relentlessly (seldom mindlessly) at office politics, usually of interest only to its participants. Transposed to film (“Yes, Minister,” “Yes, Prime Minister”), the subject has demonstrated wide appeal; but even here its keenest fan was Margaret Thatcher, the mother of all office politicians.

Throughout his history of office politics Jensen sticks to the evidence; but for him information only becomes evidence when found in files, aka “the available archival material.” Research not so assembled will be, he believes, “analysis of events that reflects assumptions and fills gaps”: worthwhile work, one might think, but he finds it “egregious” and productive of “weaknesses.” “All of this is simply to say,” Jensen explains, “that analysis of limited source material can be dangerous and can misdirect historians. Therefore, the present study has been cautious about interpreting material unless it was known to be correct. This makes for a book drier than some”—indeed—“but hopefully with fewer errors.” Jensen’s errors may be fewer but, as has been shown, one of them’s a whopper.

To no historical practice does Jensen seem more averse than the use of anecdotal evidence, indicting “much of the existing literature on intelligence in Canada” for being “anecdotal in nature.” Not for him John Gross’s recent definition of anecdote as “a short account of an entertaining or interesting incident.” Yet even this academic puritan occasionally relents sufficiently (although not in this book) to permit, even encourage, the use of anecdotes when one’s argument seems sturdy enough to withstand a bit of tomfoolery here and there. In reviewing a work on the CIA, Jensen declares: “This is a scholarly book … [Its author] writes in a dry style geared to capturing as much information as possible. Sometimes the details are overwhelming and might have been balanced by an anecdote or two.” He might have been reviewing his own book. Dr. Jensen, heal thyself!

Literary triage suggests that Chapter 2 most urgently needs healing. Here Jensen provides a detailed but pallid account of Canada’s acquisition during 1941 of its own cryptographic capability. The government quickly hired for that purpose the renowned American cryptographer Herbert Osborne Yardley, then just as quickly fired him. Yardley’s career is always dramatic but the few months of it spent in Canada is lurid melodrama to which Jensen’s preference for arid over florid narrative cannot do justice. The following version, condensed but more anecdotal than the author’s, may suggest how his self-imposed stylistic restrictions deprive his readers of what they have a right to expect.

As head of the first cryptography unit functioning clandestinely within the U.S. State Department after the end of the Great War, Yardley had singlehandedly deciphered the Japanese code in time to frustrate Japan’s plans for naval rearmament. During the 1920s, Yardley and his helpers cracked the codes of 20 other countries. When Henry L. Stimson, the U.S. secretary of state, found out in 1929 about Yardley’s work he was disgusted. Memorably expostulating, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” he cut off the cryptography unit’s funds, ordered permanent cessation of its activities and dismissed Yardley and his staff. The discredited Yardley, seeking to salvage his reputation and rescue cryptography as a legitimate instrument of U.S. policy, composed and published The American Black Chamber. The excitable tone of this exposé, no less than the fascination of its subject, made it a best seller. The book reflected aspects of Yardley’s own flamboyant personality, none more obvious than boastfulness: “The Black Chamber,” he bragged of his handiwork, “bolted, hidden, guarded, sees all, hears all … Its far-seeking eyes penetrate the secret conference chambers at Washington, Tokyo, London, Paris, Geneva, Rome.” Oooooh! Wouldn’t it be great if Canada could get its hands on something like that …

Turned out it could. A pair of Canadian mathematicians had been sent by their government to Washington in May 1941 to learn what cryptography might do and cost, when it could be made available and whether the Americans had anyone who might in due course become a suitable Dominion cryptologist. They were introduced to Herbert Yardley; but at the same time some of their hosts did their best to convince them that Yardley was unreliable and distrusted by his former colleagues because of his contempt for secrecy, his boastfulness, his liking for liquor and ladies, all making him the very model of a modern security risk. To the Canadians, however, Yardley had the arcane knowledge and technical skills that some in Ottawa wanted Canada to acquire; he had a proven record to back up his boasts; and he was currently unemployed.

In Ottawa for his job interview on May 12, 1941, Yardley showed his colours by acting as if he had already been welcomed aboard, providing his own job description and indicating his immediate work priority, decryption of the Japanese codes. He was offered a contract for $10,000, the headship of a new bureaucratic entity to be called the Examination Unit, a small staff and offices at a National Research Council building. In return, he was to work for six months, report to External and assume an alias. Yardley chose Herbert Osborne. It was “the same name he had used in China where his activities were known to US authorities, and,” Jensen comments astutely, “was a ploy unlikely to fool anyone.” It did, however, temporarily confuse British Intelligence, which inquired of Ottawa on June 5 whether a certain “Emeley” was “the same person as H.O. Yardley since the alleged Emeley had also worked in China and had written a book on American cryptography.” A telegraphic garble. To much cryptographic work there seems to cling a certain slapstick, delightedly recounted by former participants such as James Thurber and Malcolm Muggeridge in memoirs of working respectively for Yardley and “C,” Yardley’s British counterpart (whom everyone knew to be Stuart Menzies but could not say).

But cryptographic bureaucrats are not all Keystone Cops all the time, as Yardley was about to discover. Even as he productively set to work at the fledgling Examination Unit, hoping that its results, praised as they soon were by his new employers, would lead to at least a renewal of his contract, British officials—despite having previously urged Canada to acquire cryptographic capability post-haste to help to win the war—and, more adamantly, American officials, too, were making it very clear to Ottawa that Yardley would have to go. Were he to remain, they threatened, it would be the end of tripartite cooperation in intelligence matters, war or no war. While a backhanded tribute to the disruptive potential of the Yardley persona, this falling out because of him between Canada and its two most powerful friends was unnerving, most of all to Ottawa, which fired Yardley on December 1.

Jensen pronounces Yardley’s hiring by Canada “inexplicable”; but it is his firing that, if not inexplicable, is arguably ignoble and certainly regrettable. A week after Pearl Harbor, Yardley (according to his biographer), in a last-ditch effort to regain his job, told Canadian officials that he was “‘the only white man who is thoroughly conversant with every type of Japanese Battle Communications,’ … explained some of the tricks needed to understand telegraphic kana and listed various Japanese cryptosystems.” To no avail.

What level of proficiency and vision might Yardley’s retention have attained for the Examination Unit—particularly after being joined there six months later by E.H. Norman following the diplomat’s return from internment in Japan? Think of Canada’s black chamber powered by the two “Herberts”—one the Prince of Cryptology, the other the Prince of Japanology! Or rather, don’t think of it: such speculation could not be more at odds with Jensen’s modes of analysis, and we should not be detained by it a moment longer.

In Chapter 8, “Postwar Intelligence Structures,” Jensen asserts: “The decisions made at that time have influenced the path of Canada’s foreign intelligence collection until the present day.” Canadian foreign intelligence had hitherto been largely the prerogative of Foreign, né External, Affairs, if only because its members wanted the role and fought to retain it. “We certainly cannot afford the risk,” argued T.W. Stone (one of External’s officers most closely concerned with wartime experience) even more robustly than usual in June 1945, “of allowing another agency or Department, military or civilian, … to muck about in the fields of high, top secret political intelligence.”

Stone’s worst fears have been realized. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service is mentioned twice in Cautious Beginnings but without comment. CSIS’s recent mucking about in Canadian foreign intelligence, a function for which it possesses neither competence nor credibility (nor for that matter parliamentary mandate), has attracted much, blessedly unfavourable, comment. If, as I hope, Jensen is planning a sequel to his worthwhile if in some ways unsatisfying study, he should give CSIS its comeuppance. At least he will have a perfect title: “Reckless Endings.”