A Much Less Secret Service

Everything you wanted to know about Canadian spying but were afraid to ask

Images of the “invisible government” or the “secret state”—particularly prominent in depictions in popular culture and sensationalist journalism on the intelligence services of the Cold War superpowers (the KGB, the CIA, the FBI, the NSA)—have stoked fears of sinister, shadowy, ruthless, all-powerful organizations with global reach, stunning technological armory, and absolutely no scruples. Oddly enough, this image competes with another, contradictory image of intelligence services, one that rises to the surface each time a major intelligence failure is witnessed. In this alternative universe, the intelligence services are bumbling incompetents who never saw the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor until the bombs struck; who failed to catch even a glimpse of the Al-Qaeda terrorists who commandeered the planes that brought down the Twin Towers; who were too busy chasing phantom Reds under beds to notice the FLQ terrorists who precipitated the October Crisis; who sleepwalked through the planting of the bombs on the Air India flights that killed 331 innocent people, and were too busy stumbling over each other to bring the perpetrators to justice.

So begins the final two-page section Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America, an excellent history by Reg Whitaker, Gregory Kealey and Andrew Parnaby. As the blurbs on the back cover note with justification, the book is “a definitive account” and “will stand as a reference source of inestimable value for years to come.” Deeply scholarly, yet refreshingly unacademic in its tone and temper, the text bridges with considerable skill the requirements of rigorous, measured analysis of a wide variety of sources that is inherent to good history while simultaneously bringing that history with all its contradictions and continuities to a wider audience. The book is not popular history, but it could be and deserves to be widely read.

The authors, as they promise, document, examine, analyze and synthesize the policing of political behaviour that crosses over the limits of “ideas acceptable in the public sphere.” Where those limits are is, time and again, demonstrated to be a blurry, fuzzy, subjective zone, always evolving in form and substance and pitted against resilient undercurrents that favour the status quo in power and politics. Thus, chronologically we work through the intelligence efforts against the Fenians, the threats to (British) empire, subversion and suspected espionage during World War One, communists, unions, volunteers for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, Fascists, Nazis, communists (again) and various nationalists during World War Two, communists (yet again) during the Cold War, “New Left” movements that defied easy categorization, separatists in Quebec (both violent and non-violent), secretive sections of legitimate political parties (e.g., the Waffle movement in the New Democratic Party), terrorists and violent extremists (of all stripes and ideologies pre-2001), Russian spies, Chinese spies after technology and business secrets, and, finally, the rise of violent extremists and terrorists influenced by the al Qaeda narrative.

Repeatedly documented is the use of illegal means and in many cases highly dubious methods (which, if not quite illegal, skate very close to the lines of legality) by the security agencies. Examples would include deliberate leaking of information and dissemination of rumours publicly and among key intelligence allies in a mole hunt that cleared Leslie James Bennett in the early 1970s but still resulted in his “medical discharge”; accessing personal records held by various government agencies rather than availing themselves of the procedures for lawful access; and certain activities of the RCMP in relation to the rise of nationalism in Quebec, the incendiary nature of which most Canadians of a certain age will remember.

Of equal note, and at the heart of the book, is the response, or often lack of sustained attention, and sometimes the pretence of ignorance, of official Ottawa to the national security threats under investigation. This is illustrated wonderfully by the example of “The Paper That Never Was”: as the authors note, the illegality of some methods used against separatists in Quebec during the 1960s and ’70s raised the question of whether the RCMP Security Service was out of political control or, alternatively, “directed by its political masters to overstep the lines of legality in order to defeat separatism.” The answer (inasmuch as the security service was neither out of control nor given specific direction to conduct illegal activity) revolves around protecting senior officials. As noted, “for a paper that never existed, it makes interesting reading.” It leads the authors to conclude that “what we have here is evidence not of any political direction to the security service to use illegal methods, but instead evidence that ministers and deputy ministers had been made aware of illegal activity but preferred not to know any details, and did not wish to leave any record that they had such knowledge. In short: plausible deniability.”

In covering such large terrain—1837 to 2011 temporally, global in spatial terms and what seem to be completely different worlds from a contemporary political vantage point—the authors do not shy away from minor or major cases. Many of these two- to three-page vignettes are worth the price of the book itself. A case in point is “The Professor with a Double Life,” which relates the tale of Professor Hugh Hambleton who provided the KGB with NATO documents between 1956 and 1961; he was uncovered in the late 1970s, but not prosecuted in Canada under a deal whereby he would be -provided with immunity in Canada (but not elsewhere) in exchange for detailing what information had been passed to the Soviets. Upon later entering the United Kingdom (against the advice of a UK Special Branch officer aware that his immunity for spilling NATO’s secrets related only to Canada, not other NATO members), Hambleton was arrested and sentenced to ten years, but was soon returned to Canada on compassionate grounds.

All of this is historical. Yet the book, as the subtitle notes, covers the period from the Fenians to Fortress America. It is, therefore, inevitable that the last section, “After the Twin Towers,” is a different kind of history from the preceding four sections—inevitable in the sense that the documentary archives are inaccessible because the official documentation has not yet been released. Even with judicious use of access-to-information requests, court documents, other primary sources and a good weeding of the secondary sources—all of which is in evidence here—and even though the general and specific details of a case are (reasonably) well known, the archives of official documents often put issues in a different light. In that regard, the final section remains—through no fault of the authors—incomplete. Some might quibble whether or not the last decade in the book is really history; it is certainly an excellent first draft.

What then, to complain about, or warn the reader of? From my vantage point: very little. But that—my vantage point—is arguably the key to understanding how the book might be received differently in other quarters. The measured approach inherent to the text provides me as a scholar with detail, informed and nuanced analysis, and an assessment that is balanced and fair. Where criticism is due of the means and methods of the intelligence community it is offered; when official Ottawa is duplicitous, negligent, overbearing or sometimes paranoid, it is identified. This is not, however, a hatchet job where the intelligence community and the individuals within it—masters or servants—are reviled or ridiculed.

Throughout, the analysis is underpinned by recognition of the necessity of some form of intelligence community and an acknowledgement of the difficulties that community faces at any given time. Where errors are made—and there are many, wilful and inadvertent, plotted and stumbled into—they are identified and dissected. Often the official documents or reports by officials with access to or responsibility for intelligence are themselves used to illuminate the key issues. In 1939 an assessment of the RCMP’s Intelligence Bulletin notes “a number of serious deficiencies … [including] … an inability to distinguish between ‘facts’ and ‘hearsay’ … [and] … no discrimination between legitimate social and political criticism and subversive doctrine” and that “the police are attending and reporting on often completely harmless meetings, and spying on the daily activities of peaceful and law-abiding citizens.” Later on, the use of reports from the Security Intelligence Review Committee, court documents and the records from official inquiries pepper the text to both explain and serve as counterpoints to official interpretations and claims. Despite, in hindsight, the ridiculousness of some activities, Whitaker, Kealey and Parnaby seek to understand why such groups were targets and what was really happening on and below the surface. Surveillance of the Ladies Auxiliary, Sudbury Local, International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers is a good example, wherein simply because of the connection to a union that was believed to be communist-led, any organization associated with the union was presumed to be a communist front and thus needed to be subjected to surveillance. Nevertheless, there are plenty of cases where there were legitimate and real threats to national security brought to light in the areas of espionage, terrorism and, in the early history of Canada, subversion.

In that sense, given to my vantage point, the nuance and balance is welcomed. Others might be less forgiving because, if we are honest, there are likely to be two kinds of readers. Those who believe the Canadian intelligence community is a maligned, misunderstood and underappreciated section of the public service, essential to the security and safety of Canada, will probably consider the book an example of what the former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Jim Judd, identified as “paroxysms of moral outrage, a Canadian specialty” (he was referring to the Omar Khadr case in a leaked U.S. cable from 2008). These supporters of the intelligence community may take umbrage at the catalogue of mismanagement and mistakes documented in the book. Others, who are inclined to view the intelligence community as a collection of nefarious agents ever eager to suppress and harass legitimate political activity, or always searching to create the next enemy of the state based on a knee-jerk reaction to what is radical in form or substance, will find plenty to confirm their view. If both types read carefully, they will also find much that blunts and rejects the dichotomous stereotype of intelligence officers. The mutually exclusive framings of the intelligence community as a powerful secret state populated by incompetent nitwits are both incorrect.

From such a book it is impossible to identify one issue or craft a single take-away message. Of note, however, is perhaps something that might be missed in the detail of cases and events spanning nearly 175 years. Canadian political policing has always been globalized. The point is made in the introduction: “from its inception in the 1860s, the Canadian security service has always operated in a transnational context. Not only has it often relied on the British and Americans for institutional support, but it has defined what is, or what is not, a security risk with more than made-in-Canada prejudices and political realities in mind; global as well as local factors have always played a critical role in this respect.” When that is combined with David Bercuson and Jack Granatstein’s observation that the central factor of expeditionary operations by the Canadian military over the last 120 years is that the deployment is “always as part of a larger coalition,” as they recently wrote, we get a fuller sense of the indivisibility of the security of Canada from that of other states. In essence, the national security of Canada is a public good crafted and maintained not simply by the federal government in isolation or in a vacuum, but often undertaken in concert with, in fact nearly always with, others: most notably our closest neighbour and our historical allies. Whitaker, Kealey and Parnaby bring together the Canadian dimensions and cases of that broader (western) notion of security, but underlying the discrete tales and historical synthesis is the security of North American and Western European democratic states.

Even in the 19th century, Canadian national security had global connections and was influenced by events in faraway lands, and the government responded to threats with national and international considerations at the forefront of its mind. The 20th century was the same; the 21st is unlikely to be different.