Recently I received a new batch of documents, roughly 300 pages worth and spanning the period from the 1950s to almost the 1980s. I can confirm wiretapping under the authority of the Official Secrets Act did indeed continue for decades after P.C. 3486 but it was far from being done on a willy-nilly basis.
What struck me most about these files is the serious concern the top brass of the RCMP, and in the Special Branch, had for ensuring their wiretaps were legal. It was surprising because the history on this subject often suggests that wiretapping was done by the RCMP in contravention of the law. To be fair, I don’t know who was being wiretapping and these documents are letters and memos from the highest offices. I’m missing the “on the ground” activities (in the early years, mid -1950s, the documents appear to suggest that the President of Bell had a record of everything). But so far, the perspective from the top was that warrants should be selective in their targeting and revoked if no longer required and revocations happen pretty often. In one instance in the mid- 1960s the RCMP top brass issues a warning to a regional office basically telling them that they are issuing too many warrants and for too short a period. That was taken as a signal to the RCMP top brass that the wiretapping orders were being used to help gather investigative leads and that warranted the scolding. The senior leadership wanted targets to be selected after investigative work was done and not the other way around. In the late 1960s the RCMP was also in favor of having the government put forth a National Security Act that would set out a clear legislative authority for wiretapping and it would also contain offenses and punishments for national security offenses, like espionage, treason and sabotage. Obviously, this didn’t happen. In one interesting exchange a regional office not wanting to run afoul of its superiors asks if they should be reporting on the phone calls made by a house guest staying in a target’s home. The guest would be there for 3 months. They were advised that they of course had to listen to conversations made by anyone using the phone from the residence but needed to only make reports on conversations that had intelligence value. So, yes, dinner and house guests could have their conversations monitored. But the interesting point here, is that the question was carried all the way up to senior leadership to ensure the monitoring was legal.
The files offer more insight into Cold War era wiretapping and the construction of mass surveillance infrastructure in Canada. The reoccurring theme in these documents was the care the security services took to ensure they were operating under the letter of the law. Most importantly, the government was continually “in the know” on what was occurring. This makes the “surprise” some government officials displayed at the McDonald Commission on RCMP activities in the late 1970s, more implausible, and perhaps, more troubling.