“He turned to me and requested absolute power…”: Russia’s Campaign Against Democracy

Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

It is no secret that Russia has engaged in attempts to subvert Western democracy and elections. Yesterday U.S. Senator Ben Cardin released the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Staff Report. The Report details Russia’s activities in subverting and undermining democracy and elections over the past 30 years both at home and abroad. It is revealing in what it tells us about Russian activities and at the same time the document details how these activities fit a broader historical trend in terms of Putin sharing similar fears with past Russian leaders. I will summarize it below and offer some analysis.

Putin operates from a position of weakness not strength. As much as he would like to portray the latter to the world, the reality is quite the opposite. The Russian economy is in a precarious state, the military isn’t as modernized as he’d like it to be, and power struggles continue. We’ve known those battles occur in the upper echelons of power between nationalists and those wanting greater ties with the West and in the streets with various groups vying for the support of the people from the well known Alexi Navalny to the communists. In spite of the attention Navalny has gained in the West, the communists pose a serious challenge to Putin’s regime as the ideology has the support of older Russians wanting a return to the “good old days” and a youth just discovering it. Putin was very careful to offer no state celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution not wanting to boost public support for it.

Putin practiced subverting elections and democracy at home with the war in Chechnya. That war began following a rash of apartment bombings and in spite of no clear link to the attacks, Russia began bombing in Chechnya. Putin took note that the war boosted his popularity, it is something he has become personally obsessed with, i.e. maintaining a high approval rating. To counter dissent at home and ensure he has support Putin relies heavily on his domestic security services which he personally oversees, the FSB. The FSB also controls the country’s Investigative Committee, which is akin to its version of the FBI. There is thus no oversight between the prosecutor’s office and the Committee or the courts which often default to it when making decisions. It is political policing at its finest. The techniques mastered at home included disinformation campaigns to sow confusion, support divisive political groups to ensure Putin appears as the ‘voice of reason,’ and degrade support for democracy. These tactics were exported to Russia’s surrounding areas, areas that Putin believed Russia had a historic right to control, before spreading abroad. Russia’s security services also have no oversight of their activities, and are well funded. The aim of all this is to secure Putin’s position at home but also to destabilize the international order in place since the Second World War. The Report reinforces what we know of Putin’s aims for Russia broadly speaking. For Putin, the international order has not benefited Russia and it is one that Putin believes has increasingly encroached on Russia’s ‘sphere of influence.’ It is an order that seeks to control Russia not work with it. A return to a pre-war order, one where nations controlled ‘spheres’ is one that Putin believes would benefit Russia irregardless of the international strife and war it is likely to cause (as it did then).

To maintain what is really a fragile grip on power, Putin has enriched those loyal to him (and himself) by raiding state coffers and ensuring state institutions remain hollowed out as well as opposition parties. They must still exist because the semblance of a system is important to maintaining a semblance of legitimacy. In addition 28 journalists have been killed since 1999. Physical attacks on opposing forces in Russia are common and go unpunished. Putin projects himself as a defender of religious and cultural values against an “illiberal free world” where “multiculturalism and gay rights” spread with globalization.

Propaganda and disinformation tactics predate Putin and go back to the Soviet era but Putin has regularly relied on these tactics to consolidate and preserve his power at home. Media editors are regularly fed Moscow’s line and state media in Moscow regularly blur the line between news and entertainment boosting support for the Kremlin’s message. These tactics were used abroad as well. For example, during the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, controlling the media was one of the first priorities in the invasion.

Disinformation attacks are not new as mentioned. During the Cold War, the report indicates that roughly 10,000 such attacks were orchestrated by the Soviets. Technology and a ramped up offensive effort by Russia has made them more frequent. Russia believes that such campaigns, which seek to discredit democratic institutions and agencies and have people lose faith in the process, are possible in the West because of its support for free expression and speech. In other words, Russia believes it cannot suffer the same fate because it strictly controls its media and what its citizens can express. Since 2004, the Russians have engaged in attacks against 27 other countries including cyber-attacks and disinformation attempts. The operations cost little but can have a large payoff if a country’s divisions can be successfully exploited. At the heart of Russia’s goals is to blur any attempts at achieving an “objective truth.” As the Report states, “If everything is a lie, then the biggest liar wins.” Whatever information helps Putin is considered truth.

To spread its version of “truth” Russia has invested and financially supported a wide range of far-right groups in Europe, and even NGOs and think tanks. Figures in Russia’s government often control these investments. In addition it has supported organized crime with Russian organized crime controlling 1/3 of Europe’s heroin supplies. In the U.S. far-right groups have idolized Putin as being a defender of the white race and conservative values. Russia has actively sought to boost its influence and support from these groups including the National Rifle Association (NRA). Government officials close to Putin worked to strengthen ties with the group and even welcomed an NRA delegation to Moscow in 2015. The Russian Orthodox Church has also acted as a foreign proxy for the Kremlin’s message and the Russian state’s dominance in oil and gas has also served as a means of exerting pressure over European countries dependent on their reserves.

Ukraine has bore the brunt of Russia’s attempts to control its state with a wide variety of tactics being employed, from trying to install puppet leaders, to conventional military attacks, cyber warfare, controlling oil resources and disinformation. Georgia faced an outright invasion along with simultaneous cyber attacks. A coup was planned for Montenegro that included storming its Parliament and killing the Prime Minister. Russia has boosted its control of NGOs and influence in the press in Serbia, and in Hungary, Russia has sought closer ties with its leadership and Hungary has expressed support for Putin’s leadership. In Spain the country has battled against Russian supported organized crime. The recent Catalonia referendum gave the Kremlin an opportunity to exploit divisions. 30 per cent of social media messages from Sept 29 to Oct 5 were found to have Russian connections. Germany, Latvia and the Netherlands have all faced Russian disinformation campaigns too. Countries in Europe have tried to recently counter Russian tactics which include a NATO presence in Latvia as well as working to support Russian media independent of the Kremlin and operating abroad. Countries have boosted their cyber capabilities as well as worked with media to expose Russian disinformation and tactics. Recommendations of the Report include a stronger stance from US leadership against Russia, freezing assets of Russians involved, more sanctions and coalitions to combat Russian tactics and boosting democratic values abroad and strengthening institutions among others.

The Report reveals that Russian tactics and motivations have similarities to the past in that all this offense, all these attempts at disinformation and spreading the Kremlin message, is to shore up and protect a regime on shaky ground at home. At the heart of these attacks is Russian insecurity, fed by a leader that wants to maintain control at home at all costs. The offense in this case functions as defense. Even the attempts to control surrounding areas, Russia’s so-called ‘sphere of influence,’ are to boost Putin’s power and image at home as he tries to restore a kind of Soviet-era greatness again to appeal to those voices that claim Russia has declined since the days of the Soviet. The fear of the government being toppled, whether from outside forces or internal ones, dates back to the nineteenth century. Aside from moments of insurrection the idea of a ‘strongman’ leader have also existed for decades in Russia. Even Lenin believed in a vanguard for his revolution. Putin thus continues these historical trends and is certainly aware of the capability of the government falling to the people or to challengers in government. Putin’s desires to protect and maintain his power were evident from his earliest days in the Kremlin. In a precursor of what was to come, Boris Yeltsin recalled that when Putin was to become Prime Minister, Putin had “turned to me and requested absolute power…”

The question that remains is what specifically will the US leadership do to combat Russian attempts at destabilizing an international order that has benefited the US and the West for decades. What will US leadership do to combat election interference? With mid-term elections on the horizon and nothing concrete coming out of the White House, the time for actions and answers is quickly running out.

A link to the full report is below:

US Senate Report

Canada’s Magnitsky Act is Better Late than Never


Canada’s Magnitsky Act received Royal Assent today. Some may wonder just what all the fuss is about, especially if they haven’t been following this case. I will do my best to explain in general terms for a broad audience (which is of course who this site has always been geared to).

Bill Browder was once one of Russia’s largest foreign investors. He was involved in investing in Russia’s lucrative oil industry. Browder found the identity of his investment fund stolen in order for the thieves to commit a large scale tax fraud in Russia. Browder hired lawyer Sergei Magnitsky to investigate. Browder had at one point thought that the regime of Vladimir Putin was different than Boris Yeltsin’s who allowed corruption  and mafia influence to run rampant in government. In the early days of his investing, Browder went on an anti-corruption campaign exposing oligarchs who were stealing money from the companies he invested in, and initially Putin backed him, but only to stenegthen his own power. That backing ended when  Putin arrested the biggest oligarch, the head of Russia’s gas company Gazprom,Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It was a message to others to fall in line and back Putin and also to share the wealth with kickback schemes that Browder has estimated to have netted Putin 200 billion dollars. When the identity of Browder’s company was stolen and charged with tax fraud, Magnitsky uncovered the entire scheme that implicated police and a number of officials in the Russian government. Browder and Magnitsky thought that if they presented their evidence to authorities, Putin being a nationalist, would clean this up. What they found was that there are no good guys in Putin’s Russia. Magnitsky was jailed, by the same police officers he testified against, and tortured. But as Browder has described, perhaps the Russians thought the Starbucks drinking lawyer would cave and recant, but he had principles and he refused. He was killed in jail, at the age of 37, a father to two young children.

Browder now in exile from Russia, went to the US. The oligarchs engaged in criminal activity on behalf of the Kremlin kept the money the government paid them outside of the country, in places like the US and elsewhere, using it for boarding school for their kids, lavish gifts for girlfriends and so on. Browder asked the Senate leaders in the US if there was anything that could be done to target the individuals responsible for Magnitsky’s death and those that commit atrocities at the behest of the Kremlin for money. The result was the Magnitsky Act which banned visas for travel and the individuals assets. The Act was expanded to a global act in 2016. Browder uncovered Putin’s role in the kickback and tax schemes in the Panama Papers.The top investigator in the Panama Papers story Daphne Caruana was recently killed in a car bomb. Putin attempted to retaliate against the US for the Act by ending a practice where Americans adopted Russian children with a number of health problems from Down Syndrome to Spina bifida. It was beneficial to Russia because the state didn’t provide adequate funding for their needs. His ending of the adoption led to widespread protests in Russia, from doctors, teachers, people from diverse segments of society. Putin blamed Obama and Clinton for the protests. The Russian support for Trump plays into this story in that Trump afforded the Russians an opportunity to get rid of the Magnitsky Act. Browder has revealed that the lawyer that met Donald Trump Jr. in he summer of 2016, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was specifically sent to the US to engage in a campaign to get the Magnitsky Act repealed. Putin wants it gone for a very simple reason, his personal money is affected. Browder states that Trump and Trump Jr.’s statement that the meeting was about “adoptions” should be understood as code for sanctions. While the initial and primary goal of Putin is to get rid of the Act, sowing disorder and chaos in the West would still suit the overall goal of breaking up US alliances and destabilizing its main adversary. Russia has backed everything from far right ideologues to groups protesting violence against blacks by police in the US, to also interfering in US elections. This is to say nothing of its actions in Ukraine. The result is that Russia today remains one of the most serious threats the West has faced since the days of the Cold War.

The Canadian Magnitsky Act sends the message that Canada is with its allies in condemning human rights abuses by Russian officials and a tribute to a man of principle that sought to do the right thing, and paid the ultimate price.

For more see these interviews with Browder:

CNN interview link on the Trump Jr. meeting:



Can We Listen to the House Guests? The PICNIC story continued

Photo from technobuffalo.com

Recently I received a new batch of documents, roughly 300 pages worth and spanning the period from the 1950s to almost the 1980s.  I can confirm wiretapping under the authority of the Official Secrets Act did indeed continue for decades after P.C. 3486 but it was far from being done on a willy-nilly basis.

What struck me most about these files is the serious concern the top brass of the RCMP, and in the Special Branch, had for ensuring their wiretaps were legal. It was surprising because the history on this subject often suggests that wiretapping was done by the RCMP in contravention of the law. To be fair, I don’t know who was being wiretapping and these documents are letters and memos from the highest offices. I’m missing the “on the ground” activities (in the early years, mid -1950s, the documents appear to suggest that the President of Bell had a record of everything).  But so far, the perspective from the top was that warrants should be selective in their targeting and revoked if no longer required and revocations happen pretty often. In one instance in the mid- 1960s the RCMP top brass issues a warning to a regional office basically telling them that they are issuing too many warrants and for too short a period. That was taken as a signal to the RCMP top brass that the wiretapping orders were being used to help gather investigative leads and that warranted the scolding. The senior leadership wanted targets to be selected after investigative work was done and not the other way around. In the late 1960s the RCMP was also in favor of having the government put forth a National Security Act that would set out a clear legislative authority for wiretapping and it would also contain offenses and punishments for national security offenses, like espionage, treason and sabotage. Obviously, this didn’t happen. In one interesting exchange a regional office not wanting to run afoul of its superiors asks if they should be reporting on the phone calls made by a house guest staying in a target’s home. The guest would be there for 3 months. They were advised that they of course had to listen to conversations made by anyone using the phone from the residence but needed to only make reports on conversations that had intelligence value. So, yes, dinner and house guests could have their conversations monitored. But the interesting point here, is that the question was carried all the way up to senior leadership to ensure the monitoring was legal.

The files offer more insight into Cold War era wiretapping and the construction of mass surveillance infrastructure in Canada. The reoccurring theme in these documents was the care the security services took to ensure they were operating under the letter of the law. Most importantly, the government was continually “in the know” on what was occurring. This makes the “surprise” some government officials displayed at the McDonald Commission on RCMP activities in the late 1970s, more implausible, and perhaps, more troubling.

Operation PICNIC Files Available to Download

CBC News

I am making publicly available the primary source documents that I used not only to construct my Canadian Historical Review article, but that also led to the media interest in December 2016. It is a sizeable download at roughly 46 MB but you should find it interesting reading. There is clearly more to this story that I’m working on piecing together but that will take time and as a result I’ve no idea what I can make public again for some time.

I’m pleased to say I’ve had more positive conversations with government officials about releasing material. I still have some wait times that I think can be reduced but I’m hopeful. I think the most positive thing about this release was that a) the sky didn’t fall, there was no security risk at all in releasing this document b) people took interest in this history. People were genuinely interested in reading about this material and history and wanted to know more. I think it actually has had the opposite effect of perhaps what some may have thought. I’m often amazed at how many students have asked me about joining the intelligence world (can’t help with that sorry) even after I’ve told them as complete a history as I know, successes and failures, wins but also scandals and abuses. This only became a media story when the Privy Council made it one by denying access. It was the excessive secrecy that made the story. As an example, few people outside of those closely following this (mainly in academia) recall the story about 3486 getting released, even though that was hugely important.  Many more people recall government wiretapping and “secret archives” out of these stories. To be fair the office was simply following protocol. It’s policy that is the problem not people. But if the government is concerned about access and past scandals, the takeaway should be transparency and openness mitigates it. It also tells people “This is how it was, it’s not the same anymore.” Be open and honest with your history.

And yet….

Despite these positives the recent bill C-58 proposed by the government is not a good sign for Access to Information reform. It places more burden on the requester who often doesn’t have a complete picture of what’s available and also reintroduces costs. It almost reads as a bill designed to curtail access.  If this was the legislative result from all this media, this is not a positive sign. All my requests could very easily have been dismissed under this new legislation as frivolous, which is now possible with this bill, and as the public saw, they were far from frivolous. Hopefully the government directs the legislation more toward increasing access rather than curtailing it. There is plenty of time to do this.

Here is the link to my academic article on this: CHR Article

And here is the link to the primary source material

Scroll to the bottom of the pdf for the start of the primary source file. Happy reading.

Abyss Gazing: There are No Clear Paths Out of the Dark


The events in Charlottesville raise important questions about the role of ideology in government, particularly in regards to the long held doctrine that public servants remain non-partisan. It is practiced in Canada, and for good reason, you don’t’ want public servants acting on the basis of political ideology and supporting one party or another. It could raise serious issues in governance. But what has happened in the U.S. this week, and the President’s response especially, has raised questions about where you draw the line as individuals working within government. Consider the possible ramifications of all of this. If the President continues his defense of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis, and you oppose this for very good reasons, and you resign rather than work for the administration, what then? Does the administration then fill up the White House with supporters of this ideology? In other words, what happens when your boss doesn’t believe in the principles of non-partisanship in the public sector?

Is this the “alternative” to the political right? (Photo EDU BAYER / The New York Times)

Why are we at this juncture? There are many reasons but one not often discussed is that Western governments have for far too long rested on the notion that they were somehow always above board, and that the extremism and radicalism found in other parts of the world, including in Europe, were problems that happened “over there,” and if they were here, they were “foreign” and “imported.” History supposedly ended remember? Western-style democracy and liberalism were thought by many as superior to other forms of government and other ideologies found elsewhere. So there’s been no effort to even think of contingency plans, the problem must have always been external. State institutions here could whether the storm of extremism and prevail being morally superior. These ideas and sentiments were always erroneous and now with the Presidency of Donald Trump they have been completely thrown to the wind. Because clearly there are some who recognize the weaknesses in our system (and even media) and its inability to contain the kind of ideological radicalism that people like Trump et al espouse and these individuals have exploited the weaknesses in the system to achieve power. I think these problems are merely in their infancy and will continue to grow, just as much as I feared the rise of radicalism 10 years ago when I began my doctorate on the subject during WW1 and the inter-war period. I saw frightening parallels with our own time and I don’t see things improving. The only positive thing I see is increased awareness but we still don’t have a means of dealing with the issue when it comes to government. When your government wants to be radical and partisan and expects it of its employees, what happens then? Do you cross your own moral boundaries and dive in, or leave, only to be replaced by ideological followers loyal to “the Party” or leader? Something that many people have failed to consider is the ways in which partisanship is a security risk. It causes division in society that enemies can exploit and fuel. Further, there has been long standing resentment in the population as a whole with politicians of all stripes because there is a very real feeling that people are not being heard. This is dangerous. One phrase I recall from the era of the Great Depression by a Canadian Senator advising the PM about worker unrest, was that people “could hardly expect to starve quietly.” Granted the economy is not as bad now as it was then, but there is a feeling it is on a tightrope that could snap at any minute and rhetoric by political leaders will not solve it. This has been brewing for some time and in the U.S. Trump and company exploited it to full effect.The violence in the U.S. can easily happen here and already is. Remember that Trump came to power largely out of disaffection and disgruntled voters who saw “hope and change” of the Obama years as mostly rhetoric and Obama as a leader of an economy that failed them (the Rust Belt helped Trump win). Trudeau could very easily disappoint in Canada because of the many huge promises that were made and were unrealistic to start with and an uncertain economy and deficit facing down the government in a few years time. Hostility to free trade policies began in Canada not in the U.S. and there’s plenty of people feeling they’ve been left behind in Canada. Radicalism isn’t new to Canada either. Just recently the “Canadian Nationalist Party” wants to publicly demonstrate at the University of Toronto. This was the name of Canada’s Nazi/Fascist party of the 1930s before it merged formally with the Nazis in the ’30s. Violence has already broken out in Hamilton. These groups are trying to exploit their “right to free speech” in order to be heard. Voting trends are also a sign of trouble. I remember roughly 10 years ago when fewer and fewer voters went to the polls, and I remember people saying “if you don’t vote you don’t get a say” and the media and Elections Canada were thinking the problem was simply voter apathy and that people didn’t care. That may account for some of it, but a decrease in voters I always saw, and still do, as a much more serious and troubling sign and it was certainly a message. To me it signals resentment. It signals that the individuals and the system that elects them is losing legitimacy among people. If that continues as it has, we are left with people turning to leaders they think are not like “traditional” politicians and who can solve all their problems if they just abandon their reservations, however immoral the actions of the politician might seem, and trust them.

What could only be worse in the future is if people come to believe that the system itself doesn’t work anymore especially if their chosen leader is disposed by the “rigged” system that he/she fought against. What happens if resentment grows, fueled by a leader, to the point the actions of private militias become defended by the government  over state forces? In the U.S. the administration early on compared its intelligence community to “Nazis.”


Not exactly as the President described it. White supremacists attacking counter protestors. Photo for The Washington Post by Evelyn Hockstein
Militia groups in Charlottesville. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


So do you follow the leader into the dark or leave, maybe even support their ousting. And what happens then? Does the government fill up with radicals? Does the ousted leader call for help from its radical, possibly armed, supporters? The West is heading I fear to some dark days. We must be resolute in opposing hate, but tread cautiously. I can’t help but recall some wise words from Frederick Nietzsche:…”when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

“Must be the CIA”: Conspiracies and the Intelligence World

Tin Foil Hat Society: Source YouTube

A few years back a fellow academic friend of mine and myself jokingly referred to every unexplained noise on the phone or computer hiccup as “must be the CIA.” We were not involved in anything remotely of interest to anyone but in the wake of Snowden many people were overly paranoid. Why did we choose the CIA? The myths of the organization often serve as the archetype of the shadowy intelligence organization snooping on all or to borrow from a popular term new to the West, “the deep state.” While we could separate fact from fiction, it recently occurred to me that many people cannot, at least in regards to the intelligence world. After teaching about espionage history and having more exposure to individuals involved in it, my understanding of that world has continued to evolve. Something that continually fascinates me though is how many people know very little about it and are very quick to leap to the most outrageous of conspiracy theories. They have become so common, that I often preface my teaching of the subject that I don’t want any conspiracy theories submitted in the form of research papers. This statement sometimes leads to the question, “but what if it’s true?”

It would be one thing if it was just students sayingor  and believing in fiction, but a number of people harbor suspicions of intelligence agencies. There’s reasons for this, and they mainly stem from past instances of controversial and sometimes illegal activities but the fascinating thing to me is that of the people who believe in conspiracy theories that I met, they don’t even know of those past abuses and controversies or they have only a passing knowledge of them. Indeed I’ve been asked the following a few times in a variety of ways, “you’re a smart guy, you can’t tell me the US government had no role in 9/11.” When I break that statement down, it tells me that if you’re intelligent you should be able to “see through the mystery” or the “lies,” “connect the dots” or “fill in the blank.” The event was just so big, how could no one know? This is anecdotal, but of the people who I have had these debates with, few of them have a good knowledge of international affairs, history and what they do possess is skewed to fit the conspiracy narrative, “Osama bin Laden was trained by the CIA right?” or some such nonsense. If these thoughts were confined to a few people, no harm, but they are not. They are growing, and worse, they are finding their way into powerful places, like the White House.

Why is this happening? Like most things I don’t think there’s one simple reason for this or one factor but several and I may not hit them all obviously.

1. Believing in conspiracy theories is easy.

This is the main one for me. It’s much easier to accept a simple straight forward, even Hollywood like narrative, because it’s easy to digest and doesn’t require critical thinking because you’re just being told what the “truth” is. Critical thinking is increasingly in short supply.Keeping up with politics and understandings of the past can be time consuming. It’s easier to explain things away with a simple narrative. Many people don’t feel they have time to learn about what their governments have been doing over the years and want to believe that they didn’t have a hand in some traumatic event because they weren’t involved in voting or holding their government to account over the years before something happens. The irony here is that people search for complicated answers that are easier to accept than the truth which is often the result of complicated factors and relatively obvious to see. Neglect is far more likely than malice at the root of any conspiracy theory.

2. The internet as a source of knowledge.

The internet has increasingly become portrayed as the place you go for answers, ex. “Google it.” People go to it for advice on anything and everything, including their health and diagnosing illnesses. The problem is when people often claim they’ve done “research” using the internet, they have no bloody clue what “research” is and/or how to do it. It doesn’t consist of staying up late and reading countless websites. The conspiracy sites outnumber any legitimate ones that contain factual info giving a false impression of “consensus” around the conspiracy story.

3. Secrecy is equated with criminality.

In this vein secrecy and privacy have much in  common. Both bring on perceptions of criminality, that someone, or an agency, with secrets or a desire for privacy must be harboring criminal intentions or hiding criminal activity. Law enforcement has often been guilty of helping to propagate this idea, the old “if you don’t have anything to hide, come forward, give us a password etc.” This misleading logic is used not only against individuals seeking privacy but also intelligence agencies needing to protect state secrets, “they’re hiding the illegal stuff they do or their conspiracy plans, UFOs, etc.”

4. Too many people have limited understanding of history and international relations

This one is the fault of all the cuts to history and other related arts programs because they “are not useful for getting a job” to quote the views of some governments and university administrators. All people need to succeed are “business degrees” or “science ones” and people now wonder why a businessman with no knowledge of foreign affairs and history has the capability to use technology created by science to possibly blow up the world and surrounds himself with conspiracy minded advisors. It isn’t clear how much Trump believes but the point is he helps spread theories and tries to rally support for them from followers. I wonder what a difference a history or political science degree might have had on someone like Trump. But Trump aside, conspiracy theories rely on people not knowing things, and those theories filling in those knowledge gaps with their interpretation of past events that have led to the present. Poor and insufficient knowledge of history and what led to an event is often necessary for someone to buy into a conspiracy theory.

5. There just isn’t enough history.

There’s multiple factors here. Intelligence agencies have been guarded with their history and so has government. But what’s the result of that? It’s that what we do have is often the sensational, and the scandalous and I will tell you as an instructor that it is tough to then tell someone “no no, there’s no smoke here.” What has been released has often been forced out and as a result we’re left with a limited understanding. Here’s an example, how about a social history of CSIS or CSE? Is that possible? Right now no chance. And yet, there’s many many people that have worked for these organizations for decades, but we won’t know their stories for many years if at all. These were workers like other workers, trying to do a job they thought was important and necessary but we can’t get much of a glimpse of those lives or work because of the nature of the organizations. Some kind of reveal would remove the nefarious feelings people have, and hummanize the organizations and the people who were there. Part of the reason these conspiracy theories are allowed to propagate is because of a lack of knowledge and a lack of hummanizing of organizations that were made up not of machines but of people who did thankless work, and work that wasn’t as glamorous as people want to believe but work that was important. If people don’t think that’s important to know consider that many in the US, including the President, think the “deep state” is after the President. If people had more knowledge of these organizations, of the daily lives of people in them (at least in the lives of past workers, clearly present day isn’t possible) maybe that would help damper some of this and remove the “us vs. them” that is so common with these theories where “us” is society and “them” being the intelligence services.

The end result here is that even conspiracy theories and why people believe them is complicated and multi-faceted. The “truth is out there” but people just have to be willing to see it when it’s in front of them. Truth is often times much stranger than fiction.

To Post or Not to Post? Academia and Social Media

Images from Academia Obscura and http://www.mettermedia.com/metter-media-social-report-april-24-2015/

Admittedly, I’m still new to the social media scene. I only joined Twitter in January, and Facebook in December 2016. I have some opinions on the subject now, especially as an academic who sat on the sidelines of social media for a long time and has now entered it. I started thinking about the topic more and more after I had a Twitter discussion with a fellow academic and I have arrived at some personal takeaways. Others may not agree with me of course, but these are my own personal observations and feelings on the subject.

For starters, I joined social media more out of a feeling of necessity than anything else. My views might then be skewed because I felt compelled to be involved in it rather than eager to join it, and ever since I haven’t really enjoyed it. Why compelled? Because I honestly felt like it was a necessary part of having people know about you and your research particularly in a tough academic job market. But now that I’ve entered, and tried it, I have to question the value in terms of making a public contribution. I’ll focus on Twitter right now since that is my latest entry. Twitter I found to not be a good place for any kind of debate or discussion. The mere fact that people have to reply to their original tweet to go over the 140 character limit speaks to this. To draw on Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message,” and in the case of Twitter that 140 characters really does dictate what you can and cannot say. The medium favors snappy comments, not nuance, and all too often many people begin starting their Twitter debates in anger, whether it’s responding to someone, or to a news article. The medium favors knee-jerk reactions, and quick replies. In other words, the complete opposite of reasoned and intellectual debate and discussion. It brings out the worst in people, myself included. I found myself wondering if Twitter is how “newspeak” begins as I contribute to destroying words to make the character limit and I also contemplated when the “quacking” would begin, the ultimate goal of newspeak. These “debates” I found often start in an antagonizing manner and end with either people agreeing to not agree, or whomever gives up the assault first. It’s also fairly easy I found for the “discourse” to end in insults. Here’s a Twitter confession: I find myself also retweeting stories or sending out initial Tweets about stories I haven’t read but the title seemed about right, and I’m quite sure many others have done the same, since reading every single news article takes time, too much time. What also takes time is going through everyone’s feed that you follow. How many of you have muted others because it’s too much or you just don’t want to unfollow. I’ve done both, unfollowed and muted and sometimes I’ve refollowed someone I unfollowed. Once I discovered “mute” I’ve stopped unfollowing people. The problem for me tended to be the most prolific Twitter users could be the most difficult to follow because they crowd out your feed. Now we can just mute, whew! But if you use mute, what’s the point then of following other than to be part of group?

The biggest problem I find with Twitter is that I find Twitter to be a giant echo chamber. And it’s this reason I question the academic value of it. If your followers think like you, and you follow others who think like you, your feed quickly becomes filled with people either patting you on the back, or you patting others on the back. The exceptions to this I found were when the angry attacks begin by the “outsider” to a group who is shouted down or encouraged to leave, all while attracting bystanders who weigh in with “likes” about who took the win, not unlike the old school yard fights that attract onlookers who then retreat back to their own circles once the exchange ends. So as a public good I question the value of this as it appears to me to encourage the creation and defending of “camps” more than reasoned exchanges of information and dialogue with people who hold different views. I don’t see much bridge building but rather – wall construction. Speaking of which – consider this, why does everyone have a problem with the President of the United States using Twitter as his medium of choice for public engagement? It just seems wrong. Ask yourself why.

I wish other mediums were different but I haven’t found that to be the case. Facebook pages can be similar, except the owner has more control over what takes place and same with your own website of course. I have found social media apps to be most useful when used for their original intent, connecting people, and also for making people aware of issues and events and what you’re up to. I’m not sold on the academic value yet.

The other big issue is time investment. This is all unpaid work (some outlets do pay for material, worth pointing out) and it’s work that takes away from other work, like academic publishing, which is still the standard form of recognition in academia and the one your peers will be judging you on the most, especially for younger scholars. Write all the articles you like for news magazines, newspapers, online news sites, blogs, etc., but at the end of the day, it’s the academic ones that will still be the only ones that matter the most for your profession (at least in most disciplines) and this is especially the case for junior scholars. It’s very easy to become a journalist whose salary is mostly paid by a university or if you’re a sessional contract worker, the work is mostly free. Depending on your level of engagement, this can be a serious time investment and a lot of work, and while universities are happy for good publicity, it often doesn’t translate into more pay through your university so you have to evaluate what it is you’re able to do and what you can’t do. This as I said, often depends on where you are in academia.

Another factor is that some academics are highly active on social media in order to be noticed by mainstream media. This ties into the previous paragraph. While it’s great for adding some informed comment for the public, it’s also (let’s be frank here) a form of self-promotion for your “brand.” I do it, others do as well. But let’s be critical about those informed comments too. The problem, as I see it, is the speed at which you have to be ready to comment and that speed takes away sometimes from your ability to accurately assess the situation. This is where the boundary between social media and mainstream news media converges for academics. I found that when you are constantly involved in trying to comment quickly, and reading up on what others have said about a breaking story, the “rush” to provide comment leads to the comments sounding not all that original, and not all unlike what other journalists or experts have already said, and then if you’re being objective, what really is original or novel in the comment from you – the expert? In other words, getting involved quickly in a media story and in social media, for me at least, tends to have a conservative effect on your critical thought. The result is that you don’t really sound all that different from any other journalist who specializes in the material they write on. I’ve seen it time and time again where so many people, academics and journalists, tend to coalesce around the same idea or opinion and then it becomes the “correct” interpretation about something. The more critical comments, and sometimes the most unique ones, are too unique and don’t sound like perhaps what viewers and the majority may want to hear, even if it’s right. I think you could argue this is true of academia and media without social media, and I think that’s true, perhaps I feel social media amplifies the effect.

My concluding comments are that I’m really not certain how much longer I will maintain a social media presence. If I was more convinced that this media furthered the public good and encouraged a changing of ideas and reasoned debate, I’d be inclined to stick with it. But so far I’ve seen the opposite, the creation of camps where all members think mostly alike which reduces engagement with people who actually need to engage with others, a hardening of ideas, and quite the opposite of informed and respected discourse. This obviously isn’t the case for everyone, and I don’t seek to paintbrush and over-generalize but just speak from my own observations and experiences. I have also met some great people online, and I’ve met some new faces that I’m not sure I would have had a chance at meeting otherwise and that was awesome. I want to stress I’m more concerned with the medium overall, not the people, and the ways in which the medium structures us to conform to the technology or to certain ways of thinking and acting. But there’s also the other less polite individuals and sides of us the technology helps bring out. I so far have found online interactions much different than in-person ones, which suggests that the behavior of some individuals online would not be tolerated in an in-person setting and this point has been made before. The bravado that comes with speaking online I think is very real, not unlike a form of “road rage” perhaps. Maybe that’s also a worry of mine, that this kind of shouting-down style of speaking, so common on apps like Twitter, becomes accepted as real-world “debating” and becomes the norm, spilling over into all in-person interactions permanently. It certainly appears that way in the political profession. If it continues, I had better brush up on my quacking skills.

The Media, Academia, and Publishing


Over the last few months I had to balance and navigate my way through trying to publish an academic article but also one in which the content was featured in the media, before it was published. During a presentation of my work for the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History in January, I was asked a question about the balance between the media and academics and I don’t feel like I answered it quite fully and it has bothered me that I didn’t explain myself fully so I opted to write this post.

Academics dealing with and providing content for the media is pretty old hat. Lots of academics do write ups for the press like articles and the like or offer commentary on issues. Having your research be the story happens too, most often I would say with the sciences as one study after another usually finds its way into the “Health” or even the”Science” section (still no humanities section featuring latest research). Humanities academics though can sometimes find themselves in a bit of a competition with journalists as journalists have stories they want to write and publish and the boundaries can sometimes be rather fluid. If a journalist finds a great story about a historical event that no one has discovered previously, it may be newsworthy and get written up with the historian in the relevant field perhaps hoping they would have made that discovery.

What happened to me in October 2016 was a rare find. New discoveries in Canadian history do not come around often as other historians who made new discoveries recently could probably attest to, like historian Ian Mosby and James Daschuk. I made an Access request in October to Library and Archives Canada for one specific file and that file revealed the government’s wiretapping program PICNIC that began in 1951 with P.C. 3486. I searched the existing secondary literature, and consulted with other senior historians in the field the night I read the file. We recognized this may be something the media may want to see and report on. But I had a dilemma. I also wanted to publish something on this academically because no one had, but that would take months if not a year to do, and this document now having been released, was now public, so what do you do? This is something perhaps only a “still in the hunt for a tenure-track spot” academic like myself may be concerned about. I’m not sure if more senior academics would be kept up by these questions but I do think for people in the hunt for a permanent position, ways of standing out matter, and new discoveries certainly make one stand out (though it remains to be seen if it truly does make a difference in the long run!).

In the end I opted to stick with academic publishing since at the time I thought that what mattered most was the contribution to my field. In hindsight I still think it was the right choice. I wrote an article concentrating heavily on the document I found and submitted it for review to the Canadian Historical Review. From the day I found it to the day I submitted was about 2 weeks. It took me about a week to write it, and I looked it over once more. It was admittedly a little rough for a submission but I was hoping that reviewers would recognize the significance and rarity of the find over the typos. Reviewers typically were expected to provide their review within 8 weeks and it was only as that date drew closer that I began looking for a media outlet interested in the story. Contacting media too was not straight forward. I emailed every major paper, and various CBC outlets (Toronto and Ottawa). I emailed the Canadian Press too because days were literally passing and no one seemed interested at all which surprised me a bit. The Canadian Press took interest but time was passing as I waited for a follow up and CBC finally took notice when they were doing stories on the RCMP wanting lawful access to internet traffic. An unknown wiretapping historical discovery now seemed pretty timely. It didn’t hurt that the Privy Council Office in their refusal to release P.C.3486 added more intrigue and drama to the story by claiming they couldn’t confirm or deny the secret order’s existence. The story was now writing itself, but now the Canadian Press also came back into the mix. As someone who was thoroughly unfamiliar with any of this, I had not realized that the Canadian Press and CBC were competitors in the news game. Thankfully all agreed to work together.  The story also didn’t go public until the peer review process had been completed and the editors of CHR had a decision on publication. So I preserved the peer review process and got the public attention. The academic article will be published in the September issue of the CHR.

My advice then to young academics who may discover a rare find in their research: do your academic publishing first if your eye is on doing it for a living. Forget social media and everything else, seek to find a home for your work with a peer reviewed journal and after that, if you think the general public would be interested, seek out ways to get your stuff out to them. If you’ve written academia off then by all means do whatever, but otherwise, your academic publication will have longer legs than the news cycle.


Bill C-59 – “Hood-man Blind”

Wikimedia commons

I had pondered what I would write about bill C-59 for a few days. Many stories have been written about this bill and I don’t want to go over the same ground as everyone else because there’s simply no reason to do so. I will focus on the historical changes and what I think the bill means but also pay attention to some of the possible benefits and drawbacks.

Theater is the theme with this post. My tone in examining the pros and cons of this bill is cautionary because at this stage, its release is political theater. There was really no reason to introduce a large bill before the House would break for the summer unless the government wanted to get people chatting and to create hype and in that vein the bill is a success.

As for its contents, yes there is a fair degree of new content here but also there’s no guarantee of how successful it will be until we know what the budget will be. ‘Show me the money’ as the saying goes. For example, the first section of the bill sets out a new intelligence review body for Canada including an Intelligence Commissioner. This is good but previous bodies suffered from financial neglect and patronage appointments. The Review body will have the power to review the intelligence community and summon witnesses to appear, investigations though will be done in private. The mandate and powers for the review agency are fairly good, and more in line with what I had advocated for, but the question that needs asking is what about bill C-22 which recently passed the Senate, i.e. the bill to create a Parliamentary committee to review national security? This new review agency will have greater ability to review than the Parliament committee will. But one thing worth pointing out is the new agency will not be able to have access to “confidences” of the Privy Council. Why not? Why shouldn’t the review agency be able to have access to that material? I find the disconnect between government and intelligence when it comes to oversight concerning. The emphasis in this bill is on reviewing the community, CSIS, CSE, and RCMP (in matters of counter-intelligence) but why shouldn’t the review agency be able to see a confidence which might disclose how, for example, a future government directed agencies to conduct an activity that shouldn’t have been undertaken? It appears as if the government is doing its best with these oversight committees and agencies to protect itself from the scrutiny of oversight. Given all the scandal south of the border, greater transparency of elected officials here (beyond finances) would be welcome.

The bill makes some changes to preventative arrest, but not enough for me.  For me, preventative arrest is an oxymoron. What is it other than arbitrary detention? Either you are arresting because an offense has occurred or you are not and if you’re arresting without an offense occurring than you are arbitrarily arresting. It is, in my opinion, a suspension of normal legal process without the government needing to suspend the legal process. It used to be the case that f you wanted to arrest someone if they hadn’t committed a crime, an emergency needed to be declared first, and then emergency laws came into effect. Preventative arrest being part of the regular Criminal Code is disturbing, and the excuse of “well it hasn’t been used” is a weak excuse for retaining it until it is and wrongly at that.

In the realm of justifying internal government sharing, Section 98 proves to be a resilient beast to slay. “Changing or unduly influencing a government by force or unlawful means,” survives in bill C-59. There is too much ambiguity left in this section of the bill to ensure protests and legitimate dissent wouldn’t be swept up in the definitions for undermining security, and for information to be shared. Case in point, one of the more irritating statements in the bill:

“For the purposes of this Act, advocacy, protest, dissent or artistic expression is not an activity that undermines the security of Canada unless carried on in conjunction with an activity that undermines the security of Canada.”

Another sizable portion of the bill concerns the CSE. I’m not particularly surprised by the inclusion in the bill that the CSE can now engage in cyber-attacks (C-59 permits this). Historically speaking I found that when these policies were put in place it was sometimes because agencies were already doing the activity, or were asked to do it, and they didn’t want to be operating in a legal vacuum. Curiously though, a new Commissioner will be in place to review CSE activities, providing a level of distance from the Minister, but still there is no active federal court judge to provide a warrant for surveillance that could involve a Canadian. While surveillance is never to be “directed” at a Canadian, that ambiguous language has always left open the possibility of incidental collection and left people wondering if collection of Canadians could occur in a roundabout fashion.  What I find most interesting about this section is it is indicative of the broader transformation that has taken place with CSE or rather the government’s attempts to transform it.

This was an agency that was created during war and almost scuttled when war ended. CSE found its place as the CBNRC, and within the bureaucracy of the National Research Council. They were on the books as doing security related research, a cover for their foreign signals operation. It was only until the 1970s and a CBC Fifth Estate documentary that Canadians learned that Canada had a foreign signals agency and it took until 2001 for that existence to be acknowledged in law. This new bill in some ways officially brings CSE out into the open, lays out its mandate, and what it can and cannot do and who will be charged with reviewing it. At its core though, the bill seems to still confirm the military origins and roots of the organization. It can engage in attacks and it still can go to the Minister for authorizations rather than a court. We are left with this curious transition of an agency with military origins and roots into a civilian one, but still somewhat remaining on the fence, pulled between two worlds.

Another aspect of the bill dealt with immunity for CSIS officers and the controversy of threat disruption that arose with C-51. While I think most would understand and agree CSIS needed immunity protections and an ability to engage in disruption (it doesn’t always mean the worst thing you can think of, it can include warning family members about the path someone in the family is taking) C-51 was pretty lazy in doling out this kind of power. Legal boundaries needed to be drawn and there is now some attempt to do that and I think CSIS would actually be happy with more clarity. At the end of the day this bill, like many from this government, doesn’t drastically change many things and the bigger changes that are proposed require funds to make them work. Some distance from the bill I think will show that to be true.

But the whole concept of openly discussing once deeply secretive things I find fascinating. Take for instance this once closely guarded secret law:

“Notwithstanding any Act of the Parliament of Canada or of a legislature or any enactment made thereunder or any other law, no person is liable in civil or criminal proceedings by reason only that he complies with this Order or an order made under this Order.”

That was from P.C. 3486 in 1951, a secret law that protected those charged with setting up wiretapping to do it free from legal prosecution and it was reflective of how the issue of immunity was once addressed – in secret. The subject now appears so plainly in a bill, and many celebrate that transparency, but I think things are more complex. In some ways, this open discussion of immunity powers, and all the things bill C-59 lays out, should be celebrated as a positive step in transparency, but the historian in me looks to the broader historical trend. What does it also mean that something that was once considered so secret, like CSE, now appears to be so regular and so normal? I can’t help but wonder what historical actors like Peter Dwyer would think of this. Dwyer, the former MI6 officer who entered Canada’s Privy Council in the 1950s and had such a large ‘behind the scenes’ role in Canadian intelligence history, and even burned his own papers in the 1970s rather than risk them ever being made public would, I think, be taken aback by it all. He thought the whole exercise of surveillance to be a “distasteful” enterprise. It was something that was necessary, but as repulsive as it was necessary hence the need for keeping it hidden.  He was a lover of theater and would have agreed with Le Carre that “espionage is the secret theatre of society.” The watchers and listeners bore a special burden in society he thought. But that burden was also in his eyes a type of special blessing. As Mark Kristmanson detailed, Dwyer’s essays revealed the changes he was undergoing, his transition from the artistic to intelligence world, such as in his essay “The Bridge in the Parks:”

“There is perhaps no more pleasant pastime than that of listening to the conversations of other people. There are, of course, those lucky few who can place their ear at the keyhole without any moral qualms; but these superhuman creatures are few and far between…your honestly disinterested listener could do no better than to take up his station on the top of the bridge in the parks. Here he can overhear the most delightful snatches of talk…Here he can mediate on humanity.”

Dwyer may have been surprised by the modern-day transition to such open discussions of surveillance powers and the like, maybe he’d even be repulsed because he thought these  things should not be discussed so plainly. But I suspect there may have also been some delight. As Shakespeare’s “hood-man blind” stanza iterates

Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,

Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,

Or but a sickly part of one true sense

Could not so mope.

Signals intelligence and surveillance agencies broadly speaking relied on imperfect senses to interpret intelligence, but their existence also relied on those same poor human senses. The Security of Information Act encourages workers to have “eyes” and “ears without feeling.” The public must lose sight of security cameras, blank out transmission and listening stations, and maybe even talk about new security laws someday as if they were no different than parking bylaws. So for me, in addition to the measures being proposed and altered, it’s worth reflecting on the historical change, how the bill so openly mentions things once considered so secret that revealing them could land you in jail. Is this the beginning of a new phase in our security history or the end of one?

For more on the bill see here

and also here.

Read the bill here


Since I wrote this there has been a slew of articles and blogs written on this bill. Some of the best work is listed below:

National Security Law Blog

Lux Ex Umbra

Macleans article by Stephanie Carvin

If you find another piece I should include let me know.


The Canadian PICNIC Wiretapping Program

Read and watch more about Canada's secret and decades long wiretapping program

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