What Trump’s Presidency Means for Canada and What it Doesn’t (Updated 2/10/2017)

The Lapine

What a month. It’s been difficult to keep up with all the intelligence, immigration and politics stories and mainly because Donald Trump has given everyone plenty to write about. This is, I think, part of the problem the Trump presidency poses for the future. Trump loves the spotlight, he loves the engagement and his willingness to try and get it, or his inability to stay away from it, poses a problem because how much do we really want to devote to discussing Trump? He is the POTUS now so we can’t avoid it and what does this presidency mean for Canada? I will try and address some of the main stories that have come up in the past two weeks with this question in mind.

The “problem” or puzzle of Trump is especially apparent for America’s allies. Canada has certainly been experiencing its share of anxiety about what to do about Trump, and there have been countless stories about what Canada should or shouldn’t do when it comes to Trump. Some have even suggested that Canada needs more intelligence on the US, but not spy on them (which would be ridiculous and almost impossible given how closely connected our intelligence and security agencies are). The argument is that Canada should seek to gain more intelligence in terms of material on Trump and how he thinks and Canada’s diplomats should seek this out. Fair enough, but I have to ask: is this really the problem, i.e. that there isn’t enough about Trump out there? Anyone with a Twitter feed and tuned into security and politics stories can attest to the seemingly never-ending stories on everything Trump, every advisor of his, every move he makes, it is quite simply never-ending. I can’t help but feel that we have too much information as it is, the problem you could say lies more in the analytical end. Trump has not hidden his agenda (just go on Twitter) nor have his advisors like Steve Bannon. He certainly hasn’t hidden his temperament or his views on immigration and security. If we want to understand Trump just look to his past, specifically his childhood which would mean the 1950s. Trump has a nostalgia for a time when I think he genuinely believes America was better, the economy was humming, and the auto worker was a desired job among the working class (and dismissing the aspects that didn’t work because he didn’t experience them). Even his choice of food hearkens back to a time before anyone was sounding the alarm about heart disease and fast food. His campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” leaves one wondering when he thought it great, likely his childhood. He strikes me as the kind of person that would have viewed the civil rights movement as an unwanted and unnecessary disruption in the way the world worked from his point of view. He also continually tries to avoid being pinned down and certainly likes to play the role of the fool. My concern since he entered politics is that it’s an act, an attempt to keep people guessing and allow his agenda, allow the outrageous, to continue to become the norm.  Probably the only thing we can count on is that Trump is not an experienced politician, and that his administration and staff are very unsettled at the moment and it shows. I suspect we are likely going to have a never ending supply of stories in the media trying to deconstruct Trump.

Back to the issue of Canada, so what should Canada’s strategy be? Do as you do. What else can it do? There really isn’t anything Canada can do differently as long as Canada is defending its interests and the reality is the White House, as usual, doesn’t really care all that much about Canada. So don’t give it a reason to and play it steady. Since I originally wrote this Canada’s PM will be visiting Trump this coming Monday and I don’t think I’d deviate much from what I’ve written. Trudeau has the benefit of being able to work a room and he might be able to convince Trump that he’s “one of the boys” which is very much how Trump appears to think. Where Trudeau is vulnerable (and his political opponents should recognize this) is that he has a temper when he’s challenged or perceives to be challenged and things are not going his way. His town halls have revealed this side of him even more than his election campaign debates when we saw some of that come out. He’s prone to making rash statements too, and it remains to be seen if Trump will call him out over his tweet during the travel ban or about his scolding of Fox News over its misreporting of a Moroccan attacker in the Quebec attacks (perhaps not a coincidence, border agents have been turning away Canadians of Moroccan descent that are Muslim coming from Quebec, is this related to the Fox scolding?). I interpret Trump as someone who notices these things (or his advisors might). The PM will have to do his best to contain himself if challenged. The sad reality is that over the last several decades Canada has relied on the US far too much, for everything, and the result is that Canada has to walk a tight rope at times like this.

Trump’s presidency (likely) means little will change for Canada. There has been some question over whether Trump will expect Canada to pay more of its share for NATO but if Canada said it couldn’t, what could the US really do about it? What everyone knows and no one wants to admit is that the US will never not defend Canada because the defense of Canada is essential to the defense of the United States. It simply won’t happen and everyone knows it. There’s no need to throw it in their face, and to date no one has, but the status quo is likely to remain. Canada makes up the gap by doing what it can such as helping out with special ops missions and conducting signals intelligence. The same applies for NAFTA. There’s been anxiety here too in Canada on trade but not much. There’s also been silence from some corners, and that silence is most loudly expressed from the nationalist Left of the political spectrum. Sure everyone is protesting Trump’s travel ban, and for good reason, but there is scarce mention of NAFTA and it’s because for the first time there is a leader in the White House who agrees with a platform that many Left nationalists in Canada have expressed for some time, and that is the anti-globalization, anti-free trade platform. He killed the TPP. “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,” and it’s not just Canada where this is happening but in the US as well. Sanders Democrats in the rust-belt have had to swallow their hate for Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and travel ban because they quietly agree with his stance on NAFTA and helped elect him. It’s not an entirely unheard of situation, the Democrats in the US for decades were the party of choice for many Southern racists all while FDR implemented the New Deal for workers. Yes, with Trump we are living in strange times with alliances and opponents not so easily drawn and Trump knows it. As much as there’s hope Canada will get a better shake in a new trade deal, I wouldn’t hang much on his promises of “fair trade” coming to fruition. I also wouldn’t make much of the idea that “resistance” is working against Trump either and perceive changes in Trump’s stance to mean he is backing down on things like his travel ban or plans for CIA black prisons for torture. He may simply perceive that moving more subtly on these things would be a better approach rather than the direct approach because most people do tend to miss subtle legal changes as opposed to big executive orders. Sill, his recent change of heart on some issues likely have more to do with ensuring Congressional support. Protests would be better directed at Congress members (which is now happening) and have more affect than those directed at Trump.

What Trump’s presidency doesn’t mean is that Canada is completely free to flout moral superiority (nor should it). Canada has its own problems with racism, intolerance and a history it shouldn’t be too proud of on these issues and there’s no need to start sounding triumphant as the PM did when the travel ban came into effect (and over Twitter of all places). No one is saying Canada should compromise on anything but throwing things in people’s faces leads to a tendency to have those things come back in your face.  Canada would make the biggest negative impact on Trump if it does something akin to the Liberal government’s rejection to join the Iraq War in 2003 (which Canada assisted with in its own way as we now know from WikiLeaks cables). Canada is viewed by a majority of Americans as its number 1 ally and a perceived break from the US on something like not going to war with them would likely garner a strong rebuke from Trump and a lasting grudge.  It will be foreign affairs then where Canada will have to tread skillfully. I’ve been more concerned for some time that Canada has placed itself at the mercy of the US military in terms of its defense, precisely for times like these, i.e. when a leader like Trump takes the reigns of the US government, but that bed was made long ago.

In the meantime what Canada and America’s allies really need to know is what Trump’s ties are to Russia, this should be the central concern of every US ally, particularly the Five Eyes members (which are Canada, NZ, Australia, UK and US) because we share intelligence. This remains the million dollar unanswered question and Trump’s performance on Fox News where he claimed that the US is not undeserving of the reputation of being “killers” did little to help dissuade people Trump was not in Putin’s back pocket. If its one thing Trump has been consistent on, eerily consistent on, and same with Russia, it is the defense of Russia and Putin’s reputation and on the Russian end, Russia’s defending of Trump. This is the security concern where intelligence is badly needed. Let’s see what month two of Trump will bring.

It’s been 1984 for awhile -Trump just isn’t hiding it

1984 (film)

The book 1984 by George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) reportedly hit the top of Amazon’s bestseller list shortly after Trump’s win and I’ve seen a number of stories last week about it and I even shared some on Twitter and Facebook last. Yet I can’t help but wonder why it is that the public thinks that with Trump, the dystopian nightmare of 1984 has now arrived. There are of course the lies the President has repeatedly told and the attempt to defend them as truths. These occurred all throughout the election campaign and it became a big story once the term “alternative facts” made its appearance last week. The most recent one being that a computer “glitch” was behind last weekend’s airport chaos and not his actions as President.

In some ways though, we owe Trump some credit, as much as we should be fearful. It’s Trump’s brash, bombastic, over-the-top, lack of subtly that has seemed to awaken the public to this issue of lies and half-truths being portrayed as truth and facts. This has been going on for sometime and it didn’t start with Trump. It’s actually rather hard to pick a moment in time when this began though there have been some more memorable and public moments.

Nixon was often accused of doublespeak, the well known term from 1984 used to describe language that deliberately attempts to obfuscate or distort meaning. But the examples in history are really too many to list. Pierre Trudeau’s government for instance passed the Protection of Privacy Act in the 1970s, a law designed to criminalize unauthorized wiretapping, sounded great, except it also permitted the government to legally engage in warrant-less  covert wiretapping. In 1980 The National Council of Teachers of English gave Ronald Reagan the 1980 doublespeak award for his many inaccurate statements including claiming that Alaska had more oil than Saudi Arabia. The runner up that year was Jimmy Carter. Has the world forgotten the invention of the term “ethnic cleansing?” This was the way Western nations avoided intervening in the Rwandan genocide by doing their best to avoid using the word genocide to describe the genocide taking place (if they did use it they were obligated to intervene) and the US led the initiative in this regard. How about “collateral damage?” The phrase dates back to the ’60s but was used by collation forces to describe the unintentional deaths of civilians during the 1991 Gulf War. When you’re trying to kill people in war, can any deaths be considered unintentional? It was used again in the Kosovo conflict. How about the phrases the “War on Terror” or “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (torture) “extra-juridical killings,” (assassination) even the media is to blame for participating in this madness, calling lies “falsehoods.” I could go on for some time because these are some of the most highly publicized examples, and don’t include the many laws politicians in many countries have passed that do the opposite of what their titles suggest or the many answers politicians give that avoid saying much of anything. Politicians have been leading the way in doublespeak and the destruction of words (along with Twitter perhaps) and until recently, the media have permitted it to go on.

The Classic Equation Photo: Radiohead + 1984 by onimatrix

What Trump has done is throw doublespeak in people’s faces, so much so that it just can’t be ignored, so for that I’m grateful but also worried. I’m grateful because it brings the issue to life as the media have started to join the rest of the public (finally!) and have now actually started using the word “lie” to describe some of Trump’s lies. I’m worried though because most people miss the real message about power in Orwell’s dystopian horror. Yes, there’s the danger of absolute power of the state and Party and yes there’s the suffocating of ideas, but most people in their reporting of the novel in recent weeks forget that the strength of Orwell’s message is that what enables doublespeak to become hegemonic in his book is people’s complacency. In the world of 1984 doublespeak became normal, so did the absolute power wielded by the state and Party. New editions of Newspeak were brought in gradually as each year a few more words were destroyed.  The majority of people didn’t resist because it was all they knew, it was normal, and not worth the effort. Much the same is happening in our society. Think of all the examples of doublespeak I gave and the many more each of us have encountered (George Carlin has a long list). They are casually shrugged off even when doublespeak is being used to mask repressive laws in plain sight, and sanitize torture and assassination. Some of the examples I gave have even entered the lexicon, most people today would wonder why the phrase “collateral damage” is even an example of doublespeak it having already achieved normalcy (“isn’t it also the name of a movie? What’s wrong with that?”). So I’m grateful that Trump’s obnoxiousness has raised the public antenna but worried because as it continues, it will become normal, and his doublespeak is some of the most sensational we’ve seen in the West, at least since the propaganda of WW2. My worry is that before we know it, we may find ourselves anxiously awaiting the newest copy of Newspeak and inadvertently cheering the next time the chocolate ration gets increased.

“None Is Too Many:” Trump’s Claims of Refugees as Security Risks Not New For US or Canada

G. Morty Ortega/Getty Images

Over the weekend Trump managed to create an international incident by banning travel from 7 predominately Muslim countries with the stroke of a pen. His flurry of signing Orders at the start of his term is not unlike what Obama did, and the Orders are largely meant for his base. Many of the Orders lack clarity because they are designed to simply be political gestures not real policy. But the lack of forethought for this Executive Order is quite evident as Trump has rather quickly caused chaos in American airports and created a boon for lawyers across the country as the Order is legally challenged nationwide. The White House claims the basis for this ban is to keep America safe and to protect the security of the country. What makes Trump’s actions shocking to many is the boldness of them but Trump’s claim that immigrants or refugees are a security risk isn’t exactly new. The Canadian government is trying to cash in on the US ban by welcoming the stranded but the country was no more welcoming to immigrants and refugees than the US over the course of its history. Today we are also learning about a terrorist attack in Quebec directed at Muslims. Canadians and Americans have enabled these views to fester and grow for decades. If Americans are upset about it, as they should be, many need to do some soul searching in the mirror before putting all the blame on Trump.

For much of American and Canadian history refugees and immigrants were often blamed for bringing “foreign” and “dangerous” ideologies. In the 19th century Irish Catholics were viewed with suspicion and as a lesser race especially by Protestants. Anarchism and communism were often the boogeymen that were tied to an individual’s country of origin for much of the 20th century. Yiddish speaking Jews, Finns, Ukrainians, Croatians, and Poles were some of the immigrants that were considered as potential security threats to both Canada and the US. Before the UN was created, accepting refugees was done on an ad hoc basis and they were often only accepted if they were believed to be contributing to the economic well being of the country, if not, they were not welcome, humanitarian needs were not a central concern. One of the most well known examples was the case of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. The Americans didn’t want them and neither did Canada leading Canada’s head of immigration Frederick Blair to claim that “None was too many.” Racism and the belief that Jews could be communist troublemakers were behind the actions. Even after the creation of the UN and its 1951 Refugee Convention, acceptance of refugees was often tied to one’s political affiliation as Western states were very selective in trying to accept refugees fleeing communism but not people fleeing right-wing dictatorships. When countries like Canada did accept refugees fleeing right-wing dictatorships, such as the Chilean refugees, they were heavily screened as potential security risks. For instance, screening for them took 4 weeks vs. 3 days for Hungarian refugees fleeing communism in 1956. The connection between immigration and refugees as security threats continuing to grow. 9/11 accelerated this trend as the lines between immigration law and anti-terrorism law became blurred.

Moments in history where immigrants were met with extreme demonstrations of nativism often had other factors at their root, in addition to the racist views of the day. Poor economic conditions, social change, heightened tensions during war or just before war, these were often contributors to nativism during these periods. Americans’ current uneasiness about their economy, tensions with other nations like Russia and China, terrorism, conflict in Syria, these factors I think are behind this recent bout of nativism and were also ones that helped Trump get elected (who also campaigned on this issue of banning people from certain Muslim countries). It has led to Muslims, again, being “othered” and blamed as being risks to the country’s security as they were during the days after 9/11, even though none of the countries currently in the travel ban Order have been responsible for terror attacks on US soil.

The realities of security threats are far more complex than Trump’s administration portrays them. The idea that terrorism is tied to states is a foolishly outdated one. Sure there are states that in the past have indirectly supported terror cells, and some still do, but if that is the rationale, how are Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or others not on the current Order? Of the 9/11 attackers for instance, 15 were Saudis, the others from United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. None of these are on Trump’s Order. Frankly, state support of terrorism is something even the US is guilty of dating back to the 1980s and Reagan’s term. If we take the administration at their word and accept this isn’t about religion (which is extremely difficult to do because of Trump’s own statements during the election campaign with regard to Muslims) I think we can accept that Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia are not the best examples of stability, democracy and good government (why is a much longer post) but why Iran? This suggests to me the ban was designed to target places where U.S. forces and intelligence may be highly active with Iran thrown in for good measure. The Order may be directed at countries the U.S. is in conflict with or politically opposed to like Iran or is based on the worldview of Trump advisors like Bannon, either way for the administration this Order equals good security policy except – it isn’t. It is irrational to think  that all citizens of these states are potential terrorists and that terrorism is imported. Similar to Western nations in the past which painted communism as an imported ideology, terrorism is not something that is always imported. One of the most frequent terrorist acts being committed in the US are mass shootings and these are often committed by Americans on Americans and sometimes they were committed by those that were self-radicalized, by whatever ideology or form of extremism.  Has the administration forgotten about the Boston bombings and other similar attacks? The internal conditions and contradictions of a nation are more to blame for unrest than outsiders coming in to do people harm. It is a mistake to paint 9/11 as the archetype for a terrorist attack, which is what Trump is doing by constantly invoking it, and treating it as such is a recipe for missing future attacks. This ban is really pointless and can easily be circumvented anyway (doesn’t ban entry of dual nationals or nationals from EU, which saw increases in attacks in the last few years). Trump should be leaving security threat assessment to the people in intelligence who know it best and not make their job harder which he has certainly done.  Will Trump’s Order increase terrorist recruiting? Quite possibly, but my assessment is that the greater problem will be that it will sow more division and discord within America and with its allies. It may also backfire as some who elected Trump have second thoughts when they see his policies possibly coming to life causing problems for Republican House members in the next round of elections. Still, the existing and deepening divisions in the country are the real security risk that Democrats and Republicans are unable or incapable of grasping. More division will surely bring a smile to America’s opponents, watching from afar as the country continues to tear itself to pieces.

We’re Not in a New Cold War – It’s a Great Game With No End in Sight

Dr. Strangelove (film 1964)

There have been a few political analysts who are pondering whether Russia’s recent espionage tactics mean we’re heading into a new Cold War. Add to this the seeming explosion of other countries engaging in espionage, and now Canada’s spy agency CSIS, is warning that Russia and other powers like China have been engaged in cyber espionage against Canada too. Before we plunge into defining our current period by slapping on another neo onto an older term, let’s give some thought about the term Cold War as a historical period. Strictly speaking if we’re talking about the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States then the Cold War is very much done, not only because the race didn’t continue but because the Soviet Union as a political entity is gone even if Russia remains. I suspect though that when analysts are throwing the term “new Cold War” around they are defining Cold War much more broadly, perhaps even referring to the general contest between states or Russia generally and if that’s the case then the Great Game never ended.

The reality of course is that the intelligence race, or the building up of counterintelligence and espionage activities was never limited by the years we commonly think of the Cold War (1945-1989 or 1991). Ever since states realized the importance of intelligence this build up has been going on. For the most part, we can trace it back to the era of the First World War, in addition to the construction of mass surveillance infrastructure. Peace was never a limiting force in the intelligence world. Once the British realized the value of Room 40, despite some failings in the Battle of Jutland, they continued monitoring cable traffic in peacetime (it helped that British companies owned much of the cable lines around the world). The Americans too flirted with surveillance with the Black Chamber in the interwar period. What the Cold War did was ramp things up. More states entered the espionage world and became major players like China and Israel to take but two examples.  Even the recent Trump blackmail scandal, which is not yet proven, sounds like an old tactic the Russians have gone to again and again. Back in the interwar period the Soviets launched a number of operations against foreign emigre groups which they viewed as the biggest threat to their power. The tactic was to lure leaders back to Russia by having agents pose as underground resistance fighters, and once they successfully got them back to Russia, interrogations or executions were carried out. The tactic was known as “The Trust” named after “Operation Trust” the initial and most successful one that nabbed emigre leaders in the 1920s and later British spy Sidney Reilly. “Trust” tactics were used by the KGB during the Cold War. The Russians believed that by going on the offensive, Russian intelligence was providing defense.

What is occurring now is more of the same. If “Trust” tactics were used against Trump I wouldn’t be surprised, except instead of capturing an enemy, they’d be blackmailing one. We also still have espionage, but new technologies have made it much easier for states, even ones with low intelligence budgets, to play the espionage game. If new powers are needed for intelligence services to counter this espionage, Canadians should look long, hard and seriously at considering them so long as new oversight mechanisms can assure people that their privacy will be protected, and that intelligence powers won’t be used to spy on people expressing legitimate grievances against governments or help private companies go on fishing expeditions to stop the latest Game of Thrones download (this will only lead to an even bigger encryption market).

But the other aspect to consider is the role of human intelligence. It appears to me that Russia has been going back to the old days of not only employing “Trust” type tactics,  but is also trying to plant human agents in high places whether the Trump scandal proves true or not. They may be looking again at past successes, like the Cambridge Five, the five that penetrated British intelligence and went undetected for decades. Their recruitment started early. Russia may be grooming individuals from early on in their careers in the hopes they rise the ranks to be able to provide them with steady, and reliable intelligence. It was something they constantly did during the Cold War, in addition to turning high placed CIA and FBI officers. It would be the way to counter superior technology in the realm of cyber warfare and to steal it. Other states may copy the formula. This brings me to another topic of discussion appearing in intelligence news: was Snowden a spy?

The honest answer? I don’t know.  As much as I respect privacy, and can sometimes be skeptical of surveillance, because someone states they are not a spy after stealing thousands of top secret (and higher) documents, that isn’t enough for me. There’s a healthy amount of evidence to suggest it is unlikely Snowden was one, but the only people who could know for certain would be Snowden and Russia. One thing the Soviets often did during the Cold War was support peace groups and other similar organizations. I could see them indirectly helping civil liberties campaigns and whistle blowers because it indirectly assists them by turning people in rival states against their own governments. This shouldn’t be taken as an excuse for Western intelligence to go on witch-hunts, also common in history, but it has to be considered. It also makes it difficult for those wanting to create positive change in their respective countries without getting suspicion cast on them, again, this has happened often in the past.  This is also why oversight and whistle blower mechanisms are so important. They provide legitimate means for people to air grievances and counter illegal or unethical practices, and can counter foreign attempts to stoke tensions. A system that does this and protects secrets can be done. Good oversight and whistle blower policy is good security policy.

Going back to the issue of possible spies, there is growing suspicion on Assange for the Russian hacking/US election controversy. WikiLeaks has recently claimed that they would expose Trump’s tax returns and some might take this as their attempt to show they are neutral in the whole Trump/Russia/CIA dance. If they are assisting Russia, this wouldn’t convince me otherwise because I suspect Russia doesn’t care all that much about Trump, they would be fine with exposing information on him too, they seem to care more about destabilizing their opponents, fracturing alliances and sowing discord. Divided, Russia’s enemies would fall.They would like nothing more, now that Trump is in power, to have the US tear itself to pieces with election scandals and have Trump continue to turn the nation against itself, and fracture US alliances. If WikiLeaks really is working in the interest of the public by exposing secrets, where are the leaks on Russian corruption and scandals, considering all the effort Putin places on crushing dissent? You’re telling me there’s none? No leaks at all on this? If that’s true I find it remarkable.

So are we in a new Cold War? No, we’re not. The battle between states will continue as long as we have states. As so often is the case though, history continues to provide us with an important means of understanding and analyzing our current day dilemmas.

The Obama Security Legacy: The More Things Change…

(Official White House photo by Pete Souza) Time.com

I have devoted enough keystrokes over the past two weeks to Trump and no doubt many more will take place in the coming weeks. For now though, what to make of Obama’s legacy, specifically, his security legacy?

The President has left his mark on the nation, not only for his medicare reforms, climate change policies, but also because he presided over the worst recession since the Great Depression and helped bring the country to a level of stability, even if it’s a shaky stability. The fact remains there are plenty of changes he made to the benefit of many Americans, and the world. They are changes that Trump will have a very difficult time undoing, and despite his rhetoric, he probably won’t because he just can’t. In this regard Trump enters the White House in much the same way Obama did.

When the stars align (agreement in the House, with world leaders etc.) there are some changes the President can make that have lasting impact as some of the above examples illustrate. But on other files, those big changes came many years earlier and it is much more difficult to change them. Take the the terrorism and security file. Closing Guantanamo Bay was one of the changes Obama wanted to make and it didn’t happen though it is near death having so few inmates. It’s likely no longer worth the financial expense of keeping it open. But it dates back decades and closing it was going to be difficult. He signed the nuclear deal with Iran, and this is one of those changes Trump will find it hard to undo. He presided over the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq though it could be said that withdraw was inevitable given there wasn’t much more U.S. troops could do.  Trump blames Obama for ISIS which is of course not his fault. Blame for ISIS could begin with the Brits for creating Iraq, a state designed by the west, and one that ignored the complexities of the region. Obama did preside over an expanded drone assassination program, but one that was created by his predecessor, had Bin Laden killed, and in the realm of surveillance, oversaw the fallout of the exposing of NSA mass surveillance and pursued whistle-blowers like Snowden, and Manning. There are many that would say that on these files Obama didn’t accomplish much and was much like his predecessor George W. Bush maybe even worse.

But some perspective is needed here. It is relatively easy for many of us to say Obama should have dismantled NSA surveillance, pardoned Snowden, stopped all this madness. But have any of us had to step into the seat of power such as being an American president? Everyone has grand dreams of change, grand dreams of what they would do if they were in power, how they’d do things differently, as if it were always that easy. The reality of course is that the White House, as office, predated Obama and it will outlive him. As it affects the security file, he could not control world events, no more than he could change the fact his political opponents controlled both Houses of government. On the issue of Snowden, one has to ask how could a President pardon Snowden? Realistically you would be asking the President to ignore the biggest public intelligence leak in a generation. If he dismissed that with a pardon, he would have diminished what his office was, and while I think what Snowden did was important, a pardon I don’t think was something Obama had the power to do, not because he didn’t literally have that power,  but because the office he was beholden to prevented him from using it. We might like to think as people we can transcend these things, yes we can if you will, but the reality is far different. Change is often unbearably slow unless its revolutionary and then its unpredictable.What the Snowden pardon issue should drive home, is the completely inadequate mechanisms the West has in order to deal with whistle blowing in intelligence because for the law, it’s a crime, either you leaked information illegally or didn’t. The problem is this ignores the complexities of the issue. Sometimes the presidency reminds me of a monarchy (maybe because I just watched the Crown – not sure).

Similar to the pardon issue, what of Obama and NSA surveillance? As someone who is an firm supporter of privacy, NSA mass surveillance is something that all of us outside of office can rightly condemn and demand things change, but I wouldn’t have expected any different of a response from Obama. He was privy to intelligence most of us will never see in our lifetime. What did he see or know? But besides that, what could he have done given the tremendous pressures not only within government but in the historical context of the world he inhabited? Consider that this surveillance regime was decades in the making. Again these are things that while we hope could change on a dime, it’s unfair to expect it from one man and in an instance. It’s not to say the President is completely at the mercy of events or pressures outside of one’s control, but sometimes that is indeed the case. The unfortunate reality that we deal with is that it is always much easier to add security powers and engage in conflicts than the reverse. Seldom has the President had the ability to cut back on military and intelligence spending and not faced intense push back to say nothing of repealing security or intelligence related laws. For instance, when might the Patriot Act be repealed?

Obama’s legacy on these issues is much the same as I expected it to be. I don’t see Trump’s ending much different except if he has utter disdain for the office and institutions he will preside over. If so, then things may be drastically different. One thing Trump could easily do is add to the military industrial complex and surveillance powers.  Still it’s worth remembering that when we try and assess a President’s legacy, such as Obama’s, we remind ourselves that when he entered office, he was where history had put him. The same will hold true for Trump. History can sometimes be a tremendous buffer against change, for good or ill.

Wikileaker Manning Sentence Commuted – Snowden? Could be arrested (Updated Jan18)


Tonight the press reported that President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning who was jailed for leaking material to WikiLeaks and essentially gave the site it’s rise to fame (or infamy depending on who you ask). So the natural follow-up question is what about a pardon for Edward Snowden the well known leaker of NSA and mass surveillance secrets?

The answer is don’t bet on it. The White House addressed that question by stating it regards Snowden as a fugitive, who has not served anytime for his leaking of sensitive information, and has sought haven in a country the U.S. considers an adversary, i.e. Russia. There’s no way Obama could pardon Snowden without causing an uproar and Obama is seeking cover by claiming Snowden hasn’t been convicted of anything so he can’t pardon him. That excuse doesn’t really fly because there are examples of presidents issuing pardons without the person(s) having criminal convictions, ex. draft dodgers and hmmm…oh right Richard Nixon when pardoned by Gerald Ford. But the question isn’t about Obama not being able to do it it’s that politically he couldn’t. It would create a firestorm in Washington, a divide with the intelligence community, and adding to this is the fact that Snowden is in Russia.

Time.com, Getty Images (3)

This brings us to a possibility for Snowden to be apprehended not by the U.S. but by Russian authorities. The fact is Snowden was a thorn in the U.S. side that Putin liked to be able to remind them about and he was perfectly happy using Snowden to further enrage the U.S. But that will change, not might change, will change. Whatever Trump’s ties to Russia (and they are dubious no doubt about it) Trump wants better ties and Putin has said the same. Trump might also be looking for a means of mending a rift with the intelligence community that he created and Snowden might be the proverbial stone for killing multiple birds. Everyone knows Putin has no respect for privacy or human rights and if giving Trump Snowden makes Trump happy he’ll do it for some favors his way. And this brings me back to WikiLeaks and Assange who recently has demonstrated his own ties to Russia are becoming more obvious by the day. Assange once claimed that he wouldn’t fight extradition to the U.S. if Manning’s sentence was commuted. Well, with Trump now going to be in power, how likely is it that Assange would be extradited given Assange helped Trump and Trump was recently reaping praise on him? Did Assange also help Putin by helping deliver Snowden to Russia as a means of helping Putin poke and prode Obama over the years? We may never know. Seem far fetched? Well consider reality 2017 so far. There’s evidence of Russia involved in hacking during a U.S. election, helping the soon-to-be President win after information was posted on a site run by a man the U.S. considers an enemy, that the President-Elect has now praised, but there also may be a video of some sort involving the President-Elect that Russia might be using as blackmail against him and a hacker group anonymous claims it will get it out. Oh and the Pres-elect compared his intel services to Nazi Germany and called CNN and BBC fake news. So. This is how our year begins.

Not even 24 hrs after writing this Russia claims it’s extending Snowden’s asylum by 2 years. Don’t take that as a sign of security but the opposite. It lends more credence to my theory. The timing is meant to reassure that Snowden, with a new President coming in, isn’t going anywhere but it’s only for 2 years -why? They know there’s no time limit on the U.S. pursuing him and even before that period he could be turned over. And why is Russia even thinking he needs reassurance? Clearly for a reason. There is no certainty in Putin’s Russia, except for uncertainty. He wants Snowden to get cozy and not think about leaving because he is a bargaining chip that the Russians don’t want to lose. Trump needs some political victories and especially with the intel community and with other Republicans. Trump getting Snowden into the U.S. he would take as a victory especially with Obama just commuting Manning’s sentence which angered many Republicans. Putin I’m sure would be happy to help in exchange for anything to improve Russia’s position in the world and economic situation. Putin is an old KGB man. Don’t think he has a soft spot for whistle blowers, if anything, he sympathizes with NSA but knows Snowden is a useful card to play.

It’s clear the big winner here is Manning for getting some big relief from having her sentence commuted by roughly 30 years. And the big loser might be Snowden, caught in a political game that is not yet over. If I were him, I’d move.

Bell Canada’s Reaction to Secret Wiretapping

Canadian Press

PICNIC was a Cold War warrantless wiretapping program that began with secret order P.C. 3486 and aimed at those who were deemed disloyal or suspected of disloyalty. You can read more about it Here and Here and find links to the press stories.

So what did Bell Canada have to say about all this? No program could take place in this period and be very effective without Bell Canada. CBC asked Bell the following pointed and direct questions:

1) Why did Bell Telephone agree to provide this surreptitious wire tapping to aid the RCMP in 1951 and again in 1954?

2) Does Bell have any records from the era?  If so, what records exist related to this RCMP program?

3) Does Bell know how many wiretaps were conducted during the 1950’s? How many?



4) Does Bell today provide any similar access to any police and/or
intelligence agencies to intercepted private communications (voice, text, data) under any secret orders or programs that are not authorized by the courts?

(For instance, does Bell provide CSIS or CSE access to private
communications, under any Ministerial orders – that are not vetted first by a judge?)

5) If so, how frequently does that occur?  And what volumes of calls/texts/data transmissions are intercepted under these extra-judicial orders from government?

This was Bell’s reply:

The documents you’ve found underscore that Bell has always complied with the law. Bell would provide government or law enforcement with access to information only with proper legal authority compelling us to do so. Customer privacy is of critical importance, and Bell fully complies with Canada’s access, privacy and other laws to ensure the protection of our customers’ privacy. One fundamental difference between then and now is that
Bell today competes with multiple carriers across the country in every sector of communications. These same access laws and privacy policies apply to all carriers in Canada.



I am amazed at how I can see words on my screen but they convey nothing. A non-answer is ultimately still an answer. I find a tinge of arrogance or pride in that first line. “oh we’ve always complied with the law.. see??” I think that’s a poor answer. First, wiretapping law wasn’t very clear in this period so it wasn’t that difficult to comply with it. Second, Bell made recommendations to the government on which legal approach to take in creating the program. For instance, the government contemplated using the Railway Act to justify gaining access to the phone lines and Bell suggested it preferred this option rather than using the Official Secrets Act s. 11. This appears to me as a means of trying to help the government devise a legal solution that could work for everyone. Nothing wrong with that in terms of law, but what about ethics?

Customer privacy is a concern of any business. I see this as a meaningless statement as is the final line. Thanks Bell for pointing out that other companies exist now (they did then too). So we’re left with silence on other questions, Bell records, how often wiretaps were ordered and the questions about the present are also not directly addressed. Infer what you will from that reply, but maybe I’m being too critical? Tell Bell below in the comments what you think of their reaction to the creation of a surveillance phone network in the 1950s and a surveillance program that extended beyond that.

Canada’s Secret Wiretapping Order is Out – Read About it and Download Here

It has been an interesting few months. A quick recap. In October I discovered the existence of a Canadian state secret, a secret wiretapping program that was run by the RCMP during the Cold War called PICNIC. The program monitored people deemed disloyal by the government or who were suspected of disloyalty and it was carried out by RCMP Commissioners issuing wiretapping orders under s. 11 of Canada’s Official Secrets Act (a search warrant section of the Act) to Bell Canada (main phone company in Canada).  The program was an attempt to continue in peacetime what the government had already been secretly doing during the Korean war using an emergency order called P.C. 3486 which the government refused to confirm the existence of when I asked for it. These revelations made national headlines in Canada in December and you can read about it and read the press stories Here.

So today, I’m happy to reveal that I have acquired P.C. 3486, the secret emergency Order that led to the creation of the PICNIC wiretapping program. It was released to me by the Privy Council Office (PCO) over the holidays. They contacted me on December 16, 2016 one day after the wiretapping story made national headlines. It finally showed up (regular mail) on January 3rd.  It tells us something about Access to Information in Canada when a historian needs to go to the national media to help get a historical document of significance released. I’m optimistic that the attention will lead to changes in the future.

Now what about this Order? What can we glean from it? A few things of importance. First, section 2. Note that the wording of this section bears a striking resemblance to the Official Secrets Act s. 16 which was added to the Criminal Code in the 1970s to legalize wiretapping. Why does that matter? Because we see a similar section in the National Defense Act today. The section I refer to in particular is 273.65 (1). There are obvious differences but I think what we have in section 2 of this order is an early version of this modern-day section which still permits the Minister to write an order for a wiretap involving a Canadian without judicial oversight.

Where this order gets particularly unsettling is in section 6 and on. Section 6 reads:

  1. Nothing in any Act of the Parliament of Canada or of a legislature or in any enactment made thereunder or in any other law shall be deemed to limit or affect the operation of this Order.
  2. 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.

The powers in this section are as broad as any I’ve ever read. No law in Canada is able to affect this Order (which was secret too by the way) and section two made individuals immune from prosecution for anything they did as long as they were trying to carry out the order (wiretapping). The remaining sections made revealing wiretapping orders a crime, and made carrying out wiretapping mandatory if you were asked (phone company worker, officer etc). Also of interest is that the Clerk retained the information, ensuring it would never leave the government’s possession.

But we’re left with more questions after this. Why did the government need these exceptional powers? What needed to be done to carry out orders? Where are the records about the creation of this Order and discussions that went into its creation? Surely they would have had to discuss if an Order could overrule a federal statute (it can’t as far as I’m aware). The PM at the time said this was a requirement of NATO, and remember the letter from Peter Dwyer in the PICNIC documents mentioning the US and UK secretly doing wiretapping, where are the documents about these international collaborations? How many secret Orders or laws did Canada pass and where are they? Also interesting to consider, if this Order was meant to continue, what would that have meant for section 6 and 7? Were they still expected to carry on with PICNIC and how? Espionage was added to the Treason section in the Criminal Code during this period and sabotage was added to the Code too. Was this an attempt to extend the criminalizing of revealing the surveillance or the tampering with it? It’s a question we’ll never know the answer to I suspect. Why was the Order also presented to a Supreme Court judge instead of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? The Administrator of Canada is usually the Chief Justice (see first page of 3486).

Overall the program and 3486 have begun to change our understanding of this period. It is now too simple to regard the RCMP has having gone rogue and engaged in illegal activities solely on their own accord. We can see from early on that they were following the wishes of their political masters. It also alters how we understand wiretapping in this period. We previously thought of wiretapping as something done on an individual basis, such as a bug being planted here or there and mass surveillance we associate with post 9/11. We knew wiretapping had occurred in the Cold War but this was a larger program designed to target many people at once.  It now appears that wiretapping could be done on a large scale in this early period and it was the start of mass surveillance in Canada. We can see that mass surveillance programs have been going on for a long time and with no court oversight. When the public became aware of these programs with the Snowden Affair, the public didn’t know how far behind the eight ball it was on the topic. Some form of it had been going on for at least 65 years.

It also reveals the accelerated formation of a secret state within the state, one that functions outside of Parliament and the gaze of the public and courts. Canada was also not alone in these actions. Where are the documents in places like the U.S. and U.K. which had also been doing similar things? It’s also unsettling to learn that the government was secretly using a law for a different purpose, in this case the Official Secrets Act. The Act contained an “official secret” that only the government, Bell, and the RCMP knew about. The public saw one law, but it was secretly being used in another way. We also still don’t know how long the program went on for and how large it became.

I am pleased that the PCO released the Order to me because it is a document of historical significance to Canadians and I hope that some positive changes arise from this historical moment. It’s time for this material to all come out. I wouldn’t be surprised if Canada’s Cold War era adversaries know more about our surveillance history than Canadians. More work remains.

For now this research on P.C. 3486 and PICNIC has been accepted for publication and will be published later this year in the Canadian Historical Review. I will shortly begin compiling everything I have on PICNIC into a database that I will regularly contribute to and make the contents available for everyone to download. In the meantime, download and read 3486 yourself and let me know what you think. Let’s get a discussion going in the comments.

Download P.C. 3486 Here

CBC story on 3486

Trump Gave the Media and Intel Community a Gift – More Freedom

Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

I need not summarize or include an article link for Trump’s ranting and raving during his first press conference, there are plenty. But amidst all the fear and uncertainty of Trump, there is a silver lining in this which is more freedom for the intelligence community and the press.

Here’s what I mean. For years the media have been criticized, often by the political right, that they had a “liberal bias,” which was a stupid statement to begin with since all media in a liberal democracy is expected to be liberal, i.e. critical of government, otherwise it’s propaganda. But this began with the Republicans crying foul and wanting “balanced” coverage and we had the creation of Fox News which became an outlet for them and things heated up when the Tea Party emerged. We continually saw calls for both sides to be represented in stories even if one side was inherently irrational and non-sensible. Things have progressed to the point that the far-right, which Trump now seems to represent, has now called any media that tries to critique him as not only being unfair but “fake” which was what he claimed the BBC and CNN were (“fake news”). While this is shocking it’s also liberating. It’s liberating because the media should no longer feel bound to provide Trump with “balanced” coverage since he’s written them off for doing their job. The gloves can come off as they always should have. It has always been the job of the media first and foremost to hold government to account. It’s Trump who needs the media not the other way around. If he refuses them access, they are free to report as they like on him and his propaganda will have a much harder time getting anywhere.

It is a trickery matter with intelligence since it is often government that is the principal customer of intelligence and holds the purse strings. But Congress has so far shown it is not completely onside with Trump’s attacks on the community. And the community has been given the PR gift of a lifetime, especially from all the negative press it received over the years with the war on terror and the Iraq war. It can also take the gloves off a little more and claim it is going to bat for the American people in holding the executive branch to account by presevering the security of the nation against foreign espionage attempts. If this means revealing corruption and wrongdoing on the part of Trump in relation to Russia, so be it. Trump’s insistent attacks, and in some cases dismissal of them, have given them the ability to work with Congress to expose his wrongdoing and claim they are doing it in the interests of the American people. I’m not talking about deliberately trying to undermine him (might happen though) but no one has to go to bat for him to prevent embarrassing material from getting out. They could help expose it if it risks the security of the nation because the President is able to be blackmailed. Is it all unprecedented? Absolutely. Trump compared his intelligence services to Nazi Germany. But it’s not all bad, except for Trump.

Trump Being Blackmailed by Putin? Reports Russia has “embarrassing” Material on Trump

REUTERS/Mike Segar

I’ve been blogging about the Trump/Intel Community feud for awhile and it’s hard to even keep up with this issue and things have now taken a drastic turn and escalation. The Guardian is reporting that last month Senator John McCain handed over documents to the FBI Director James Comey that allege that Russian contacts had secret meetings with Trump’s campaign staff and that the Kremlin had “compromising material” on Trump himself from his stay in Russia during the Miss Universe pageant.

The documents date back to June of last year and were predicting events that came to pass such as turns in Trump’s campaign on policies affecting Russia. One of the reports claims that Trump had been targeted by Russian intelligence for at least five years with the goal to cause “splits and divisions in western alliance.” The documents also claim that Trump and his inner circle regularly accepted intel on his Democratic rivals and that the FSB had compromised Trump enough that it could blackmail him. The FBI is investigating the credibility of the documents but Comey is also under fire because he reportedly had information on the Trump/Russian connection and was investigating Trump campaign officials meeting with high-level Russian contacts as far back as October 2016 but didn’t make the investigations public but did discuss how the FBI was investigating Clinton’s emails. McCain claimed that he didn’t want to be involved at first for fear it would be seen as a partisan attack but felt confident in the source of the documents. The reports also indicate Russia hacked the Republicans as well but have chosen to not yet release the material. Trump was also briefed last week by intelligence officials about this as was President Obama.

If all these allegations are true it would be unprecedented. We are talking about a major human intelligence (HUMINT) move of the kind not seen since the days of the Cambridge Five, when Moscow had five of its agents placed in high ranking British intelligence positions for years. We are talking about the possibility of a U.S. President being blackmailed by a foreign government and working for their interests. It’s a major intelligence success for Russia if true and also reveals that Russia is not just playing cyber warfare games, but reviving and boosting its human intelligence operations to try and penetrate the highest offices in Western countries. We could be entering a new era of HUMINT of the kind not seen since the Cold War and a revival in the search for Russia spies. The key here is if the sources can be verified. The report is being taking seriously but until intelligence agencies can chase down and verify sources and information, the report is not yet considered “finished” intelligence and even if it was, things like this don’t usually get into the public because they cause a panic. Still, an investigation may reveal some of it is bogus, some true and some maybe explosive. Interesting times to say the least.

View the Story Here

The Canadian PICNIC Wiretapping Program

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

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