Canada Has a New Defence Plan and Will “Step Up” But What Does that Mean?


Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland caused a bit of stir with a speech in the House of Commons claiming that Canada was going to step up to play a leadership role on the world stage. The Minister was critical, and yet cautious, in her statements about the US withdrawing from its leadership in the international arena. She also dropped the word “sovereign” (which always gets noticed in Canada because any other country would likely ask “why wouldn’t a country pursue a sovereign course in their foreign policy?”) and you have the makings of a national news event. In an apparent bid to back up the claims that Canada is now a force to be reckoned with, the National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also announced that Canadian defence spending will increase by 70 per cent over the next decade.

I don’t want to throw too much shade on this because it is a good start to doing something which is always better than nothing (most of the time). Before people get too ahead of themselves in celebrating Canada’s new rise to international leader role, some perspective is needed here.For starters, this is politics and make no mistake this was political messaging aimed at several audiences.  The government has been accused by its left-leaning critics of being soft on Trump’s policies, some of this was to placate them (though again, Trump ala Voldemort was not named by the government). But also it was aimed at domestic supporters, the “sovereign” drop for instance would demonstrate Canada is pursuing it’s own course based on its “values,” vague as they may be, just like the good old days of Pierre Trudeau and Lester Pearson etc.  The government also wants a spot on the Security Council, this is more fuel to build that case. The message was also possibly directed at those in Washington who don’t like the direction the US is headed in and could serve as a signal that the US’ allies will move in their own direction. The timing is also important. Canada had to say something, perhaps the government was eager to announce something, but didn’t really want to upset Trump and so these announcements come when the US is glued not to Canadian defence policy but James Comey.  How much do we hang on all this?

Beyond the politics I wouldn’t get too excited. This recent call for Canada to chart its own direction has been uttered many times. Pierre Trudeau wanted to pull Canada away from US dependency and he wasn’t all that successful. Even Jean Chrétien claimed Canada would not follow the US into Iraq (though it turns out it did in indirect and less publicized ways) and these are only the recent claims that Canada was moving in a different direction. For decades similar speeches have been made, but the end results never really led to much difference in policy. In terms of defence spending, the last 30 years have been defined by one boondoggle after another. From helicopter purchases and cancellations, fighter purchases and cancellations, and who could forget that UK submarine “deal” Canada received? Spending is also political. Purchases could be cancelled by a future government and in a budget crunch it would be hard not to cancel. Despite the “sovereign” approach claims, all of this seems like it was done to, yes, appease Trump and the US who wanted US allies to pick up more of the international defence tab. The end result of all this is that before a new direction can really be charted, the boat has to float before it sails.

Canada’s Secret Archives (UPDATED: Yes It’s Still Secret, No It’s Not a Conspiracy)

Photo Credit: Zetema Progetto Cultura

By now the story of Canada’s secret archive has made the news. I will take the time in this post to elaborate more on what I found and why I think it matters to everyone.

This began during my search for documents pertaining to wiretapping in the Cold War. My early research finds made news in December 2016 and January 2017. The discovery of P.C. 3486 and the PICNIC wiretapping program led to a search for more material. The early indications were that this wiretapping went on for decades and that a paper trail had to exist. The RCMP paid rent to Bell for the wiretapping, so where were the financial records, the transcripts of calls, the warrants that were issued, etc.? To my dismay, a thorough search at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) involving the aid of the Information Commissioner’s office led to nothing. Where were these records?

I decided to try something different. I filed Access to Information (ATI) requests to every institution that I could think of that may still have material. This included: the Privy Council Office (PCO), RCMP, CSIS, National Defence, Department of Justice, Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and Global Affairs. Some preliminary searches came up negative, some places never replied. In most cases I asked the Commissioner’s office to intervene to expedite the search.

In the course of the search I learned more, such as that Global Affairs had some sort of facility in Saskatchewan that contained historical documents, enough that an archivist was needed. Some institutions like CSE wanted me to take other documents in lieu of abandoning my request because they thought it so broad that it would impede their function (something I assumed could only occur if they had too many documents); other institutions asked for a year extension because they had too much, and PCO told me they initially found 147 boxes of material. That’s usually enough material (if most of it is research rich) to give someone a decade worth of work.

One of the biggest problems I faced was that institutions wanted more specifics on what I was looking for. I told them my general research direction but as part of my request for “wiretapping files” from the Cold War, I also asked for the names of files in these institutions possession that pertained to my subject: in essence I wanted a list. If I had that, I could be specific, but no one wanted to provide one, except PCO which asked for more time but the time extensions became unreasonable. PCO then told me they actually had 1.6 million documents pertaining to my research. It was at that point I decided the public needed to know how bad this situation was.

After receiving the PCO’s letter, I wondered if this was some sort of secret archive. Could it be considered secret if I was told by the government that it had 1.6 million documents? My answer is: if it isn’t a secret archive, where’s the “finding aid,” i.e. the list of what’s in there? When historical documents are kept outside of the public archives, archivists are working outside the public archives, no one in the general public is permitted to know the contents, and there’s a separate system that has been developed for storing and sorting this information, what else can it be called other than a secret archive or archives?

Library & Archives Canada stacks. Photo: LAC.

I’m still not sure why I was given this information (the 1.6 million document figure): only PCO can answer that. The usual reply would be that “your request is too broad, narrow it down,” or some such refrain. I can only speculate that the previous CBC attention to my research may have influenced the institution’s decision to try and say something to the effect of “look we have a lot and we can’t do this” and to be specific about why, perhaps not recognizing that a historian would not only be upset about delays and not getting access as much as the fact that an institution outside of the archives would be in possession of all this historical material.

Given PCO’s response when I asked about the secret order back in the fall of 2016, which was that the existence of the document couldn’t be confirmed or denied, I’m guessing that had I not been to the CBC over that incident, I may have had a similar response this time around too. My guess is they did not understand the importance of this and that speaks to a bigger problem about what the government thinks of history.  But as I said, I can’t definitively offer an answer on this. Revealing that there is lots of material is not the equivalent of making something “public,” because the contents and many details about what is held, how much and where are all still unknown. All we know is that we’re dealing in the millions of documents.

It’s also worth noting that I didn’t ask for anything current. I wanted material older than 30 years, and in some instances to help the staff searching, I even stated I would take material pre-CSIS, i.e. before 1984. There are also millions of documents that don’t pertain to my research but pertain to a host of other topics. What else is in these collections? It’s also worth pointing out that I don’t blame ATIP staff for any of this. They were doing their job helping me and found themselves in this situation of having to process and handle all this archival material likely because of a mix of secrecy, hoarding, and government neglect to fix it. Secrecy led to material being hidden, inertia and neglect took over, and secrecy protected neglect and the inertia.  The reasons why this situation exists are ultimately not important right now, because the end result is the same: a massive amount of material exists outside of where it should be.

While people can debate about when material should be made public, what is much more difficult to debate is where material should be. If a file is particularly sensitive it could be kept classified for a longer period of time, and more security can be created to protect files at the archives, but at least if it’s in the archives people know it actually exists. The legacy that the current government has inherited and maintained to date is much more Orwellian and anti-democratic in that by keeping documents secluded and “off the books” so to speak, they are hiding history. A nation’s history is central to people understanding themselves and is a critical component to a healthy democracy. If citizens have no right to see their history and access it, what does that mean for citizen access and accountability in the present? What kind of governments hide their history from their people?

These are the hallmarks of totalitarian regimes not democracies. The existence of these secret archives that the state has created, either out of secrecy or neglect–or both–speaks loudly. Particularly in the year of Canada’s 150th, we see a government claiming to “celebrate” Canada’s history, while at the same time all the documents that are either inconvenient to the government’s view of history are hidden, or the government doesn’t care enough about history to treat these documents as they should be treated and turn them over to the general public.

Either way, the result is a fragmented history, one in which gaps in the historical record have become too common and it speaks to successive governments that have either neglected our past or sought to control it to preserve its image of the country as it sees fit. Whatever the reasons the results are the same and are intolerable. It is a situation that every historian of every political stripe should oppose as well as all academics. The archives are not just a place for historians. They are a place for all academics to do research, a place for the public and the country to learn and discover themselves – warts and all. They are reflective of what the country has been and is today. What has happened with all this hoarding is a perversion of that, and of the laws that are supposed to exist to protect citizen access to government documents and preserve the country’s history.

Take a moment and sign the petition I launched below which calls on the government to return historical material to LAC where it rightfully belongs, and to reform both the Access to Information Act and Library and Archives Canada Act to ensure this doesn’t continue. For the ATI Act to work it requires that institutions are transparent about what they hold. Among other changes, the Information Commissioner needs more power to acquire documents when government is not being transparent and the archivist needs more power to acquire documents rather than the current system which relies on side deals with institutions. They have clearly used this system to their own benefit and not the benefit of the people. When a law that is supposed to provide citizens with access to documents is being used to help hide them (ex. “be specific in what you want out of 1.6 million documents you can’t see”) and a law that establishes Canada’s national archives is being used to quietly justify secret archives, we have a serious problem. The LAC Act anticipates the direct transfer of material from government departments, institutions and agencies to the National Archivist and, therefore, the practice of holding back such transfers thwarts the spirit and letter of the Act and undermines the role of LAC as a central repository for the documentary heritage of Canada.

I’m hoping that this government fixes this mess and finds itself on the right side of history. They should understand, as previous governments did not, that history doesn’t belong to governments, it belongs to Canadians. It’s your history and you have a right to access it.

Use the link below, or the banner on the right or on the homepage. Signatures are not made public:



Since this story has come out about this issue there has been some discussion as to whether using the term “secret archives” was sensationalist. I can’t speak for CBC but I can speak for myself and what I know. So first, it’s quite ludicrous to think that the CBC didn’t speak to archivists, they did, I know this because I read the online article, the director general Robert McIntosh appeared in CBC’s coverage, other archivists also spoke to CBC as CBC acknowledged online, but many currently working do not want to speak publicly for a variety of reasons. Why try and continually make accusations archivists weren’t consulted? To force people out to face reprisals?

It is easier for retired archivists to speak out but even still many don’t want to deal with the subject of security exempted material and that’s what this story has mainly dealt with. To try and draw a distinction between funding cuts at the federal archives and access to material in this case, as if it’s an “ether or” scenario is disingenuous, misleading and a false distinction. When dealing with security exempted material the issue of archival reform and access to material are not separate and distinct issues but rather they are intimately connected and one fuels the other. Security exempted material began accumulating during the Cold War (we think) and funding cuts, halting of reviews during the Mulroney years, and the power individual institutions had to retain records from the archivists led to hoarding. Secrecy and lack of access has made the issue one that was fought largely behind closed doors. Have former archivists not made the lack of funding issue and backlog issue known? Of course they have and historians did as well, often publicly calling out the government for its repeated cuts to LAC. Historians are not oblivious to the low morale and sad state of affairs and they certainly don’t blame public servants for that or expect more of them. But who was making it known that the government was also hiding documents that pertained to domestic wiretapping operations and had been keeping it out of public sight for decades? No one, because no one could, and that’s the issue here along with the issue of the accumulation of material and lack of funding. The story was about trying to get security exempted documents. The implications of it are to ask what else beyond security exempted files is being held and how are security exemptions being decided? In the UK, the illegal and embarrassing actions of colonial officers from the 19th century started their hoarding process. How far back in Canada’s history did this start? We can’t answer this if we don’t know what’s there. The public and historians are told to be specific when making ATI requests, but how can you do that when these historical events, like domestic wiretapping programs, were never made public? When no one except those familiar with the material know the material exists what do you ask for? “Can I have the files that shall not be named?” Seriously, how is that not a secret? I would welcome anyone to try to request unknown material. Let me know how that works out. Because of this situation, more creative ways at getting at the material were needed.

Does that make it conspiratorial on the government’s part? Of course not and to suggest it is conspiratorial because material is secretly held is utterly foolish. Every country has exempted and secret material. Every country has material that is sensitive for security reasons that can’t be made public. The issue is: when does that end? The issue is excessive secrecy applied to these files and for too long a period of time and an ATI Act that is now being used to deny access to both current and past material rather than grant it. Canada is far worse at this than other countries. Not confirming or denying the existence of a 70 year old document is just plain silly. The inconsistency in releases is staggering and apparent to frequent users of the ATI. When I discovered PCO had 1.6 million wiretapping related documents did I expect a list of holdings right away? Of course not. I was told they had this after I asked for a list. Frankly, I didn’t know who had what or how much. How could I? The timeline I was given by them was 2 weeks but the release was held up for security reviews and “consultations.” The public doesn’t know what’s going on, it could be because the material is unsorted, but to those on the outside of the process, the effect is the same, we still can’t see the material, we still don’t know the extent of the holdings of the government outside of LAC, so yes it’s still a secret archives. People can speculate on the internet all they want about what they think the reasons are for delays and refusals but all you see as a requester of the information is the refusal. If you want that to change, sign the petition. Let’s change the legal framework and then push for the funding to implement it and clean it up, and no I don’t want current material released unless it’s in the public interest to release it. I want more power for the Commissioner’s office, more for the archivist to acquire documents and not always have to be deferential to institutions, as well as having section 69 of the ATI function the same as other exemptions rather than the “not applicable” status PCO confidences currently have.  Some just want to speak about neglect and lack of funding when speaking of this story, and not the inability to get at the material, but that inability and excessive secrecy on exempted material along with lack of funding and neglect has led us here.  It’s great to bring up funding and it’s a good opportunity to do so, but while this story dealt with hoarding, it was also focusing on security exempted material and access to it. What else is there isn’t known. If someone does know, I’d be happy to hear from them and suggestions on what to request. Archivists and historians need to be allies. We are all concerned about our heritage, as well as our ability to know that heritage, access it, and hold our past to account. There are no longer any good reasons for keeping all this material from our past a secret and to not fix all the issues that led to it.


If you’d like to support the petition by putting a link to it on your website please do so. You may also use the brief below for your readers to explain the petition:

Petition Statement:

It has come to the attention of the public that the Canadian government
over the course of decades has amassed large quantities of historical
documents, numbering in the millions, and has kept this material in several
different areas linked to institutions such as the Privy Council Office,
Global Affairs, the Department of Justice and others. The holdings of the
government have been kept secret. A petition has been created and is
available to sign electronically on the e-petition government website. It
is petition number e-1090. The petition calls on the government to transfer
all historical material to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) as well as to
reform the LAC Act and Access to Information Act to ensure historical material is
regularly transferred to the archives, as well as enabling transparent
citizen access to documents. The LAC Act anticipates the direct transfer of
material from government departments, institutions and agencies to the
National Archivist and, therefore, the practice of holding back such
transfers thwarts the spirit and letter of the Act and undermines the role
of LAC as a central repository for the documentary heritage of Canada.

Russia’s Latest Intelligence Battles: Offensive or Defensive?

In the last couple of years Russia has been making headlines with its incursions into various conflicts such as in Syria and Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. It also appears to have been steadily upping its game when it comers to intelligence gathering and cyber warfare. There is of course the most recent example of charges of interference in the US election but also in European elections. But Russia has also been devoting more to human intelligence (HUMINT) too (spies for those not familiar with the terminology). There was for instance the Illegals Program where Russian agents living as Americans were arrested in the US in 2010. This event even inspired the creation of a television show. There was also the case of Jeffry Delisle who was the former Sub-Lieutenant in the Canadian Navy who had been selling secrets to Russia from 2007 until his arrest in 2012. What to make of all this?

Historically Russian intelligence has been focused inward, that is, concerned with protecting the government from subversives and enemy agents that could topple the government. This inward focus reaches back to the 19th century. In the latter half of the 19th century, modern day political terrorism really could be argued to have originated in Russia as the Czar battled with revolutionary youth who were inspired by the Nihilist movement. This counter-cultural movement sought a new reformed Russia and was met with fierce repression by the monarch, which created the Okrana secret police to route out revolutionaries leading to many innocent youth being detained and sent to Siberian work camps. Following the assassination of Alexander II, an attempt on the life of Alexander III led to the execution of more revolutionaries including Aleksandr Ulyanov, the brother of Vladimir Lenin. His death provided more personal fuel to Lenin’s revolutionary desires. Lenin was famously quoted as telling other radical youth after his brother’s death that there was “another way” to change Russia besides assassination (revolution). Even with Lenin’s victory over the monarchy in the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks quickly realized that counter-revolution and insurgencies were not something limited to the former monarchy. Lenin charged the “Iron Felix” Felix Dzerzhinsky to create the Cheka. It was a brutal domestic political police that viciously sought to eradicate counter revolutionary forces (waged by both internal Russian opposition and external western forces) and most famously captured and executed famed British spy Sidney Reilly after Russia fought a bitter civil war with former monarchy or “White Russian” forces.

The “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinsky

But this desire to guard against and protect the state from counter revolutionaries led by outside forces or internal ones never dissipated after the end of Russia’s civil war. Joseph Stalin’s consolidation of power was largely achieved by his ability to gain control of the state’s intelligence services and political police. His NKVD force engaged in some of the most vicious and paranoid purges the world has ever known with millions perishing in what Russia has called (during the most intense period) Yezhovshchina which the West often refers to as the Great Terror, or Yezhov’s purges. Yezhov headed up Stalin’s political police and arranged the death of millions including the purges of the country’s military command. The purges of the 1930s were so bad that the Nazis had contemplated a covert operation where they would play to Stalin’s paranoia in an attempt to have him purge the country’s military leaders. They were shocked to learn Stalin and Yezhov had beaten them to it! Of course the paranoia didn’t stop with Yezhov who also ended up being executed.

Throughout the 20th century Russia grew its intelligence service to become one of the largest (at one point the largest) the world had ever seen. Even with the rise of the KGB after WW2 Russia was still inwardly focused even as it engaged in covert operations around the world. It often set its sights on emigre opposition groups (such as Ukrainian ones) that opposed the Soviet government.

I would argue that what we see now with Russia is different. These recent moves in the past ten years are much more offensive minded and are in-line with the increased military incursions and testing we’ve seen. I find it implausible for the country’s leadership to claim it is defensive minded when it is testing new long range missiles in violation of its treaty obligations, annexing portions of countries, and trying to fuel an insurgency to take control of other areas to say nothing of quite boldly trying to interfere in the election of a world superpower. It’s unlikely Russia didn’t think anyone would notice. Quite the contrary. The election interference seems like more of an attempt to send a message that Russia could do it and wants recognition and international respect. Putin seems to want to play to the nationalist forces in the country (which seem to be winning) and engaging in the intelligence war appears to be another way to do it, in addition to the military element. Russia seems to want to be a respected world superpower again, perhaps even hearkening back to the days of the Russian empire, but to be that it seems to also believe it has to engage with and possibly challenge others.  In terms of intelligence, the implications for the West are to not just assume Russia is interested in cyber warfare. That would be a mistake. The use of agents is clearly also on the rise. I wouldn’t be surprised if Russia went to what worked before and tried to penetrate the intelligence services of the west the old fashioned way – by getting their agents hired. They had success with the Cambridge Five, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was tried again. The point really is that the west needs to not just focus on data collection and cyber warfare. It needs to do a better job of reacquainting itself again with the second oldest profession.

Access to Info Inc.? Where to Draw the Line on Subsection 20 (1)(c)?

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in FX's spy drama, The Americans. Patrick Harbon/FX

Last week I received some more documents pertaining to the PICNIC wiretapping program. There were exemptions applied and this didn’t completely surprise me. Portions were blacked out with the institution citing two subsections of the Access to Information Act: 15 (1) and 20 (1) (c). Subsection 15 (1) covers international affairs and defence and I expected some redactions with this subsection cited (though I don’t agree with it, the documents are from 1951). The other I wasn’t familiar with. I had expected 15 (1) or 19, which covers protection of privacy and personal information, or subsection 23 which covers solicitor/client privilege, but 20 (1) (c) was new to me. So I investigated a bit. Below is subsection 20 (1) (c):

20(1) Subject to this section, the head of a government institution shall refuse to disclose any record requested under this Act that contains …
(c) information the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to result in material financial loss or gain to , or could reasonably be expected to prejudice the competitive position of , a third party

So the subsection is meant to protect a third party from a release that could result in a financial loss and also affect their competitive position. Based on the documents I was given (which involved discussions of how to keep the secret wiretapping order secret) and the surrounding text that wasn’t redacted, I have good reason to believe the subsection was invoked to hide Bell Canada’s name in the documents. It raises an interesting question, particularly for those researching national security and its history, a history that has often led to government partnerships with the corporate sector. Government contracts have been awarded for numerous elements of the security state, from the construction of surveillance infrastructure, to software programs, to even who could build the most secure filing cabinet. In the case of wiretapping and Bell, the PICNIC documents do reveal that the government promises confidentiality for their role in it. When does that promise end, especially if the technology is still in use? It becomes a problem when you consider how many other companies are involved in the security industry and how do you balance these historic promises of anonymity with the public’s right to know?

In the case of historical research, it is certainly a question that institutions should consider when applying exemptions, but in this case, (if it is Bell) where it is already known that Bell was a participant in this program, and further, regardless of the third party, the passage of time and historical value outweigh the promises of anonymity that were made in 1951 (I think). The institution that applied this exemption, I think, failed to take into account subsection 20 (6). It reads:

Disclosure authorized if in public interest
(6) The head of a government institution may disclose all or part of a record requested under this Act that contains information described in any of paragraphs (1)(b) to (d) i
a) the disclosure would be in the public interest as it relates to public health, public safety or protection of the environment; and
b) the public interest in disclosure clearly outweighs in importance any financial loss or gain to a third party, any prejudice to the security of its structures, networks or systems, any prejudice to its competitive position or any interference with its contractual or other negotiations.

The issue here would be proving that this disclosure is in the public interest and not just in the interests of the researcher. As I understand it, this exemption in the past was invoked in cases surrounding the release of environmental testing results and was contested in requests involving the agriculture sector. I don’t know of a case involving national security (but would definitely like to hear about it if someone does). Certainly I think it would be in the public interest to know more about this given that the government had permitted wiretapping to go on without any oversight by Canada’s courts in this period and it may have played a detrimental role in people’s lives, particularly if they were dismissed from their job, say in the public sector, for something heard in a wiretapped conversation. I certainly don’t think a national security exemption or international affairs redaction was warranted given, again, we’re talking about 1951 and any spy worth their salt didn’t use the phone to discuss secrets. Even government workers were explicitly told in security manuals not to disclose sensitive government information over the phone. What do you think? Where do we draw the line over protecting the corporate sector’s role in our security history?

(Underlines in 20(1) (c) not in original)


Lost Amidst the Shuffle Last Week was Intelligence Oversight Passing Out of Sight

The Canadian Press / found on

Last week was a busy news week. There was an attack on the British Parliament, Trump made the news (this is actually a daily occurrence), and what you may not have noticed was the last vestiges of a strong intelligence oversight plan disappearing in Canada. You can be forgiven for it, not many people knew about, not many people seemed to care, and that was something the government seemed to be well aware of.

Now perhaps the “last vestiges” is a bit of an embellishment and an exaggeration on my part, but only “perhaps” because consider how long it has taken for the Canadian government to take seriously the issue of intelligence oversight, and actually put forth a bill to deal with it. The answer, to put it simply, is a very long time. The last real attempt at reform came back in the days of the creation of CSIS, over 30 years ago. When the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) was created it was only meant to review CSIS activities, not the RCMP, which has now once again entered the world of counter-intelligence (that worked out great before CSIS remember?) and it also doesn’t cover all the other intelligence divisions of the military, or the Canadian Security Establishment (CSE) which is responsible for signals intelligence. Everyone has their own method of “oversight.” Getting the government to take oversight seriously is a big deal, the last major overhaul required a Royal Commission and public scandal and this time it required significant public concern over the Harper government’s bill C-51 or what became the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015.

The Liberals you may recall campaigned on making sure that proper oversight would be in place to deal with the new powers Harper’s government gave Canada’s intelligence agencies and to placate all that public uproar. But that was so 2015! It was ages ago in the world of the internet news cycle and the lack of attention bill C-22 received seems to have confirmed just how short of an attention span all that moral outrage and citizen concern had.

So what happened last week? Bill C-22, the bill designed to create a Parliamentarian oversight committee that would have access to everything it could ever want in terms of information about intelligence agencies and activities (at least that’s how the Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale liked to advertise it) was gutted by the Trudeau Liberals. I don’t use the term “gutted” lightly, but let’s talk turkey here. It was gutted. The Parliament committee that was made up of members from all the parties in the House made improvements to the original Liberal plan and the governing Liberals rejected the most important of them. So what does that mean? It means that the new oversight committee will be handpicked by the Prime Minister, and perhaps most importantly, the committee could be denied the ability to see information if it could prove injurious to national security, and a Minister makes that determination, not a court. That’s right, the committee that is supposed to be responsible for overseeing the intelligence community which (I’m often told) is responsible for national security, will not be able to see information if it may injure national security. The bill will go to the Senate soon and one can only hope the new “non-partisan” Senate will try to inject some actual oversight power back into the bill but I wouldn’t hang much on that. What will sting the most for some is the government advertising its new committee as having kept its campaign promises even though those in the know realize that this isn’t true.

I was never a fan of a Parliamentary oversight committee as a means of oversight, primarily because I take issue with the lack of oversight on Parliamentarians. Many of the intelligence scandals in our past (that we know of) began with orders from the government not rogue intelligence officers. Still, I was open minded. Perhaps bill C-22 was meant to placate the intelligence community? Perhaps, but if so, it’s both foolish and shortsighted to think that this type of oversight is good for the intelligence community. At the end of the day, bill C-22 will not protect the intelligence community from scandal, let’s get that straight, it’s designed to protect the sitting government from scandal. Politicians will likely be more than willing to throw the intelligence community under the bus if required, except with this bill, it will have to wait until a new government comes in and the new one will use the oversight committee to throw mud at the old one. Rinse wash repeat. This kind of oversight that the Liberals are trying to push through can easily become a means of playing politics with serious issues, and it likely will.

The real devil here isn’t the government or the intelligence community or politics. The real demon and Shadow King (to borrow from Marvel comics) is – secrecy. This has haunted and plagued Canadians from having any meaningful level of intelligence oversight or real transparency and freedom to information. Governments in Canada have been slavish followers and believers, worshiping at the alter of secrecy believing that if all were truly revealed the sky would fall, Canada’s allies would abandon intelligence sharing (insert other fears here) and on and on we go. It shouldn’t take scandal to have reform. It shouldn’t take public outrage or public disgust with government. It should take responsible and real leadership to admit change has to come. Instead we are left with governments devoted to policing the effects of problems rather than the causes. In the case of bill C-22, it was created to deal not with the cause of lack of oversight (which was the devotion to secrecy) it instead dealt with the effects of improper oversight which was citizen discontent and concern. So the government “investigated” and “debated” and held “consultations” all designed to placate a citizenry into accepting the idea that “don’t worry, we’re dealing with your discontent and doing something” and then bill C-22 was the something. It didn’t have to solve the root cause of the problem of poor oversight, just the effects. The thing is about governing this way is that the endless decision-making that often takes place leads to nothing being decided. So we are left with in bill C-22, an oversight plan with so much built into it to avoid oversight. And again, it’s secrecy that is the culprit. The government’s desires to hide information, the insecurity of the national security oversight plan, is at the root of bill C-22’s failures.  The government would do well to learn from our intelligence history, and from other nations, that secrecy is what leads to scandal. It’s ability to protect is limited and fleeting and should only be reserved to protect real threats to security, to protect agents, current investigative methods, and active operations, but not from the body designed to investigate all this! An independent oversight body, working in conjunction with experts and the courts, would have been a serious attempt at oversight and actually could protect the intelligence community if they were in the right, and the public if they were the victim of abuse by members of the intelligence community, as well as getting to the bottom of who should be held responsible.  How would that play out? I don’t know, that was the government’s job, but they passed on it. So in sum, goodbye oversight, we never really met, the public didn’t really know you were planning on stopping in, but you seemed like an interesting fellow. Maybe one day you’ll be back. Of course the current “oversight” mechanisms in each agency and institution are not departing, we will just continue to know little about them as usual, which includes measuring their effectiveness.

One would think that with all the scandal and history the government and intelligence community have faced, not just in this country but in others, that they’d have figured out how to deal with that demon of secrecy, figured out the biggest lie, the biggest secret.

Because you see, I will share a secret and tell you the big lie, the big secret about secrecy. Nothing stays secret forever.

Follow bill c-22’s status here

Why You Should Care About Bill C-22

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Most Canadians may be vaguely familiar with bill C-51. This was the bill that would go on to become the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015 and it granted more powers to Canada’s spy services along with other additions that I don’t have the space to get into. That bill caused enough controversy that it led to the Liberals campaigning on introducing strong intelligence oversight to make sure the powers wouldn’t be abused. They also campaigned on changing the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act if need be. Given the let down of the Liberals on a number of promises to progressives, you may have an indication of where we are on this issue.

Bill C-22 is the government’s answer to intelligence oversight. If you cared about C-51, this bill should be a major concern to you. It would create a committee of Parliamentarians that are supposed to be able to request whatever information they want from Canada’s spy services and inform the PM if something is amiss. At least that’s how the Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale advertised it on CBC Radio. If you haven’t the time to listen, he said the following:

“In Canada, we’re taking the position that this committee of parliamentarians will have extraordinary access to classified information, and they will be able to look at every department and agency of the government of Canada that has any security or intelligence function.”

Sounds good, except if the Liberals do what they propose, that’s not going to happen at all. As this bill currently stands, the committee will essentially be hand picked by the PM (the PM will offer their picks to the GG, not more than 4 members can be of the governing party from the House but two Senators must also serve who could be of the same political leaning or party as the PM) and when it requests information, it has to do so from a minister in charge of the institution and a current and ongoing operation can be exempt from disclosure. Originally, the government wanted to grant a minister the power to refuse to disclose information if the matter was one of “national security” regardless of if it was an ongoing operation. Yes you read that correctly.  The committee in charge of reviewing “any matter relating to national security or intelligence that a minister of the Crown refers to the Committee” could also have information denied to it on the basis of “national security” (who said only Trump could play “1984” dress-up?). This section was struck out in Parliamentary committee but the Liberals don’t want to accept this amendment. There are reports that the government wants to re-insert a number of possibilities for exempting the disclosing of information, all of which relate to what the government would consider national security. They also want to retain the ability to withhold information from the oversight committee about a current intelligence operation. In other words, the Liberals want the ability to block information from going to the oversight committee that reviews national security matters – if there are national security matters.

If the government has their way, politics can render this committee absolutely useless, making it just another layer of bureaucracy that is forced to sit together and draft a meaningless annual report and get paid to do it. The Access to Information Act, in either the government’s original version of the bill or the amended one, also does not apply to the committee, removing public oversight of the oversight committee. Does this sound like effective and “extraordinary” oversight? Under the Liberal’s original plan, will the minister of Public Safety or National Defense ever give the committee information that will embarrass the current government and create a scandal? Especially if it’s regarding a directive that came from the minister? Does anyone realistically see that happening? My problem with this system from the outset (and what I expected would happen) was that it was based on a presumption that intelligence agencies were just itching to “go rogue” and that if they had more power they would surely take things into their own hands and abuse that power. My discovery of the PICNIC wiretapping program was an eye opener because it puts the shoe on the other foot. It is fine to have greater oversight of intelligence agencies, but what about oversight of governments that are ordering their intelligence agencies to do things they know are illegal or morally unethical? A strong case could be made that we should be equally fearful, or perhaps far more fearful, of governments abusing their intelligence agencies rather than just those agencies going “rogue.” Someone has to grant institutions power and budgets. The mass surveillance structure that now exists was not created because some intelligence officers just decided among themselves they were going to set out and build a network decades in the making. This was a collaborated effort by multiple governments who provided big budgets and the necessary legal framework to do it. What bill C-22 will ultimately do, if the Liberals just do what they want, is contribute to more citizen disengagement and disparaging of politics. Even if a minister is aware of an abuse by intelligence services, the odds of the minister turning that information over to the committee so they can wear the scandal and tarnish the sitting government and their career are slim to none unless they are forced to do it and I’m not entirely clear on what the ramifications are for not turning information over even in the committee amended bill.  A minister may also give information orally. If so, can that be an option in lieu of written documentation? I don’t see how that should be permitted.  The Liberals claim they need to protect current ongoing intelligence operations. But what then is the oversight committee for? Is it to review something that happened decades ago? How can they provide oversight against current abuse if they don’t even know what’s currently going on? How is an “ongoing” operation defined? When does it end? Does citizen mass surveillance constituent a never-ending and ongoing operation? If so, the committee will never see anything related to it under the Liberal plan. As the bill stands there are too many ways for information to be hidden.

If the Liberals have their way, the government will continue to hide behind the phrase “national security” to withhold information, proving once again they have little understanding of what the phrase means or the word “oversight.” The government wants to continue to layer this committee with secrecy and not effective mechanisms for oversight.  Even in the amended form, I’m skeptical that this method of oversight will be effective. So many people worry about the power Trump can wield or may try to wield in the US. When will we begin to think seriously about oversight not just of departments of the government but on the government itself? We should be writing national security laws and procedures not with reasonable future governments in mind but for the opposite kind.

Was Trump Wiretapped? It’s Complicated….

Reuters Photo

Trump continued “keeping people on their toes,” as he as has often remarked, by accusing his predecessor of wiretapping him and today has asked Congress to delve into the issue. The president has offered few other details. As is the case with much of what Trump does, this too is unprecedented in several ways, but let’s get into the wiretapping part of this. So what did the FBI do exactly?

As part of the investigation on the Trump campaign’s Russian connections, the FBI asked for a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), according to news reports. The FISC issues FISA warrants, basically the surveillance order. This court was created back in 1978 and the purpose was to authorize surveillance of foreign spies. The president cannot order a wiretap.

So the FBI wanted a warrant to keep an eye on transactions between Russian banks and four members of Trump’s campaign team. News media reported that the court turned down the FBI’s request to monitor the Trump campaign individuals because they’d have to first demonstrate that those individuals were acting as agents of a foreign power, i.e. spies. So the FBI narrowed its request to specifically target the banks but some media also claimed that included emails and messages and not just transactions. Did the FBI get the warrant to be able to target the Trump campaign members indirectly, i.e. by targeting their Russian contacts? We don’t know. If they did, it’s not illegal to do that, just well, morally dubious perhaps. But it they weren’t in touch with those banks there would be no surveillance right? Trump doesn’t claim his phone was tapped though that’s the suggestion based on his tweets and we don’t have mention of phone tapping in the stories.

So now: why is Trump doing this? That’s the million dollar question. My guess is that Trump is desperate to try and change the channel on the Russian investigation especially after Sessions recused himself of involvement last week. So he goes to the well he’s gone to before, blaming the intelligence community(IC) of wrongdoing, and blaming Obama of something. It worked for him before (the whole birth certificate nonsense). He knows that in the media this investigation into his campaign has been compared to Watergate and Nixon, and so he’s trying to reverse the story to say “it’s not me that’s being like Nixon but the intelligence community and Obama! I’m the victim of the new Watergate!” This is aimed at his supporters to try to whip them up. He also has to make things “official” by going to Congress and asking for investigations and such. Expect Trump’s administration to be throwing the Watergate/Nixon analogy out often. They want to redefine it’s recent use and to own the analogy in order to to shift the meaning to one where they are the victims and it’s Obama and the IC that are acting like “Nixon.” But for his supporters and Congress, ask yourselves the tough questions here. Why would the FBI be asking for FISA warrants? Why were they granted one for Russian bank contacts? These things are not handed out like candy. The more troubling question for Trump is: why would you be part of that investigation? Trump may have just given the Senate the excuse they need to appoint a special prosecutor. So let’s do it, and clear the air right? This isn’t going to go away. A full independent investigation is needed to bring everything out and onto the table both for those supporting Trump and his opponents.

There is another possible reason for those Tweets. Trump also may have fired out the Tweets to try and get ahead of something he knows may be coming. There may be something that someone found through surveillance, and it would come out soon, and he knows it, and he’s trying to prepare his “conspiracy” story to “explain it” before it is revealed. Either way, he needs to be asked directly on what he has done to warrant being a part of any wiretapping, and if it’s illegal wiretapping, prove it or stop disparaging the highest office in the country. Congress cannot allow it to continue.

For those interested in the legalities of this, Just Security also has a good write up on this story here.

Trump’s Unsettling Nation-Building VOICE

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

President Trump’s address to Congress was a clear attempt to change the tone of the administration. But how much of a change was there? Does it really matter if the President “sounds” more presidential or is it substance that should be the real focus? I think the latter because while he may have sounded more presidential, his VOICE plan sounds very worrisome.

The Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) will be a new office that will track crimes committed by immigrants and publish them in a weekly list. It sounded awfully familiar to a Breitbart News section on “black crime.” The office and program are unsettling for many reasons with the main one, for me, is the further association being made between immigration and crime. 9/11 created a linkage between terrorism/anti-terror law and immigration law but now with Trump’s plan this will be dramatically ramped up. Trump is setting up the immigrant straw man as the cause of all of America’s ills. I couldn’t help but notice how everything “foreign” in his speech was the cause of America’s problems in his mind, from foreign trade, to illegal immigration to just plain immigration. The emphasis on the “foreign” threat is something we have seen many times in history and certainly in both Canadian and American history as not only were other cultures and races portrayed as “dangerous foreigners” but also those on the left of the political spectrum. What Trump is effectively beginning with his administration is nation-building by way of repression of the “foreign” element in America, where “foreign” is defined by the government and “American” the opposite.  Not only is this targeting of immigrants regressive but the definition of “foreign” threat will most certainly shift to include broader segments of society than just immigrants.

Add to this two other unsettling future White House plans (this in addition to the new travel ban and suspected Russian ties) which include an investigation into voter fraud and the intelligence community (IC). Will Trump seek to purge the intelligence community with supporters and “yes men/women?” You bet. I wrote about the liklihood of this in a previous post. Add in the voter fraud investigation, which will certainly (I imagine) look into changes that could make it easier for Trump to win reelection, and you have the beginnings of a very dangerous situation emerging in the US.  Trump predictably booted critical media last week from participating in White House coverage, I also wrote that if he did this and continued his attack on the IC, he was effectively going to war with them and the gloves would be off and this seems to have occurred and is a mistake on his part. If the White House doesn’t want to work with the IC or media, both will only feel as though there’s no point in even giving Trump’s administration the benefit of the doubt. Still, one cannot help but feel that if ever there was a time in American history to be critical of the direction things were going in, this would be it. You have to wonder at what point will the majority of GOP members start to publicly admit that the President isn’t wearing any clothes.

“Build-the-wall!” Coming to a Canadian City Near You


Many Canadians reacted smugly to Americans shouting that phrase (Build the Wall!) in support of Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. What they could not have foreseen, was that this chant is on the cusp of being shouted by a number of Canadians if they’re given the opportunity, and the wall would be between Canada and the United States.

Asylum claims have been sharply increasing since Trump introduced the travel ban and even though US courts shot it down, a new one is in the works and set for release soon. Just in Quebec alone the number of people crossing from the US has tripled from 424 to 1280 in the past year. The increases are happening in many provinces but Quebec and Manitoba in particularly have garnered much media attention as people make the difficult trip on foot from the US into places like Manitoba and in harsh winter weather with some even losing limbs from frostbite. As much as these heart-wrenching stories elicit sympathy from many, there is a steadily growing sentiment that something has to be done to stop the “illegal” crossings. These crossings are occurring because of the Safe-Third Country Agreement between Canada and the US which stipulates that a person claiming refugee status has to do it in the country they arrived in. This agreement emerged in the aftermath of 9/11 and it was not just to prevent a “clogging of the refugee system” as people have lately claimed. It came about because of American fears of Canadians having a lax refugee and immigration system and the mistaken belief that some 9/11 hijackers entered the US from Canada. The goal was to reduce the number of asylum seekers from leaving the US and entering Canada to claim refugee states. Refugees faced higher levels of refusal in the US and incarceration.

Recent media reports have as many as 1 in 4 Canadians wanting a Trump style travel ban imposed. That’s 25 per cent and that’s not a small number. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise. As I wrote in an earlier post, hostility to refugees and immigration is not new in Canada or the US and since the 1980s refugees have also been regarded as a security threat. Canada’s immigration policy and its refugee policy have, for the vast majority of Canadian history, been tied to economic policies and not humanitarian ones. Tony Clement of the Conservative Party even hung up on a CBC reporter this week when he refused to stipulate what he meant when he said the government has to “enforce the law” when it came to illegal crossings. When pressed in the phone interview to describe what he meant he hung up. Why? Because what he may have meant was that the crossings should stop, but he likely knew where that would lead, “do you want a wall?” could have been an obvious next question from his interviewer. Maybe Clement doesn’t want a wall, but he and other similar minded people are probably starting to quietly admire the architecture of walls in general, waiting for someone to give them permission to publicly profess their support for solid structures.

So the question is not if but when will this chant or a similar one like it start emerging in Canada?  Remember this Tweet during Trump’s ban?

To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada

— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 28, 2017

The Tweet, to me, sounded smug, and it still does.  As a historian that is quite familiar with Canada’s immigration history, Canada does not have a history of welcoming people and as I wrote in an earlier post, comments like this that were clearly designed to capitalize for political gain, can come back to bite you. What Trump likely knew if he read this, was that it’s all well and good for Trudeau to throw this out there but when refugees start coming we’ll see what happens.  Sure enough, when Trudeau was pressed to temporarily suspend the Safe-Third-Country Agreement, so that refugees could claim asylum at a legal crossing instead of getting turned away and having to risk their life in an illegal crossing, he refused. Even the Immigration Minister said that “people should claim asylum in the first safe country that they land in,” a direct endorsement of the Safe-Third- Country policy (of which the government is well aware) that compels desperate people to literally risk life and limb to cross into Canada in an unsafe manner. Strange the government opted not to Tweet this. All it will take is just one negative incident involving a refugee to set off calls for a wall. In the end it’s the current government that, by refusing to suspend the agreement and allow people to safely declare asylum, is contributing to playing up the daily drama of these crossings, contributing to needlessly risking lives, and failing to adequately devote the proper amount of resources to handle the influx. It’s the current government that is doing the most to lay the concrete foundation for the calls that will surely come once hate and fear begin to take over.


US Administration Teetering on the Brink

Mario Tama/Getty Images

On Monday Canada’s Prime Minister visited President Trump in Washington. Many Canadians, especially media, watched nervously wondering what would come of the visit. The answer was not much, the sun still came up in Canada and the visit was fairly uneventful and it also included a round table about women executives and entrepreneurs.  It seemed more like an attempt for Trump to try and cash in on some of Trudeau’s feminist political capital (not likely to work) and a staged event to have Trudeau feel like he’s making some positive contribution. The media analyzed every detail of the visit including whether Trudeau could handle Trump’s handshake (really?) and then there was the way over-drawn discussion of what Trump meant when he said he would be “tweaking” NAFTA when it came to Canada. The phrase was clearly meant to convey that the US is NOT concerned about its arrangement with Canada. How could it be? Three states that backed Trump in the election greatly depend on Canadian trade for jobs: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Instead of relaxing a bit, Canadians immediately began the anxiety parade about what “tweaking” will mean. Washington has its own issues right now, and Canadian trade isn’t that high up, or even on the list. The Press Secretary even called Justin Trudeau “Joe” on Tuesday, a pretty good indication of how little this visit and Canada ranks on their radar. There’s a good reason for this and that’s because of Michael Flynn.

Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned Tuesday because, as Spicer put it, the President had an “eroding level of trust” for him and asked for his resignation. It wasn’t just Trump, Trump just couldn’t put it off any longer. The issue leads back to Russia. During the presidential transition in December, and just as Obama announced sanctions against Russia for its hacking during the election, Flynn was on the phone with the Russian ambassador promising an end to these sanctions when Trump took over and he lied about the contents of the call to VP Pence. It would be one thing if this was the only issue but the transition, as has become blatantly obvious, has been a mess and marred with infighting. For a man who seems to care so much about his brand, Trump seems content to surround himself with people who are intent on destroying it to implement their agenda, Banning being the other advisor that is contributing to this and helping erode whatever is left of Trump’s reputation. He’s even part of a side group operating away from the input of the National Security Council. Does Trump really think this will be a good idea? Trump need only look at retailers who want nothing to do with the name to see how this whole “being President thing” has completely sunk his reputation, both because of his doing but also because of who he has surrounded himself with. It begs the question if things would be or could be better for him if he would only ditch the most controversial, and baggage laden figures in his entourage. But the other side of this that we also have to consider is: are White House staff scrambling to implement a Trump agenda that is poorly defined, made up on the spot, frequently changing and they’re crashing and burning in the process? Leakers seem to suggest this is also a factor in the chaos. Things seem to be going from bad to worse.

The nightmare is far from over for him because apparently Trump knew for weeks about Flynn’s lie. This wasn’t Flynn’s first brush with Russia. He had also dined with Putin, had paid public speaking engagements, and had connected with Russia during the election. Those close to Flynn also believe they saw a change in his views on Russia, Iran and Islam when he became connected with Trump. Was he acting on his own with this phone call about sanctions? Some media, like Politico, are suggesting that may not have been the case. There are now calls for a congressional committee to investigate the ties Trump’s administration has to Russia. This is serious, serious stuff affecting the highest branch of the US government. It comes on the heels of Russia possibly having embarrassing material on Trump, the hacking during the campaign, and the resignation of Paul Manafort last year who was Trump’s campaign chairman. He resigned also because of ties to Russia. The intelligence community needs to know definitively what is going on with this administration and Russia because otherwise it will mean an intelligence failure of the highest magnitude if Russia has penetrated the highest office in the US a la Manchurian candidate. Think about that. Really think about it. They have to get to the bottom of this and if a congressional committee has to be called to help with it, so be it.  Even from Trump’s perspective, if there is nothing else to uncover, this should be something he should support. You can’t go forward in the presidency with this scandal hanging over the White House, every decision will be overshadowed by it going forward. Russia has also just test fired a new cruise missile, a violation of a historic 1987 treaty with the US that bans intermediate land-based missiles. It’s a clear provocation, and a test not just of a missile but of Trump. Russia is claiming all this talk of investigating Russian connections in the Whit House is just anti-Russian sentiment and a witch hunt. That isn’t surprising – near the end, Kim Philby said something similar.

The Canadian PICNIC Wiretapping Program

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

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