It has been awhile since I last did a post and the excuses are many but mainly come down to a lack of time. This month I started working with peers to try and compile a collection of essays on counter-intelligence in the Cold War. The collection promises to be international and also unique. As I was in talks with collaborators and looking over the sources I would primarily use for my contribution, I couldn’t help but wonder (again) why our intelligence history needs to be so unnecessarily guarded.
To be sure others have crossed this terrain before me, Whitaker, Kealey, Parnaby, Hewitt, Wark, Hannant and others. But judging by what we now know has been held back (millions of documents) it’s got me wondering again about the reasons for guarding this material. There is of course the bureaucratic inertia and the snowballing effect of chronic under-funding as some have mentioned, but as those of us in the field are aware, excessive secrecy was the culprit that led to the other problems. There was of course a time where that made sense but it doesn’t anymore (operations and people are quite dead). There are classified official histories but they don’t do much good loaded with heavy redactions.
I have often heard the refrain, “well Canada is a net importer of intelligence,” meaning that we don’t want to risk offending an ally through a release. I don’t buy this – to a point. First, it’s not that I don’t believe it. Of course Canada is a net importer of intelligence, we don’t have the funds or the capability to match partners like the US in this area. For what it’s worth, I wish we would take seriously the idea of moving to a more self-reliant position in this field (and that’s partly so I don’t have to hear this excuse to justify the withholding of information). As in other areas, Canada needs to recognize that sometimes partners won’t always be there and we should be moving more towards standing on our own in many areas (at least value the principle of it if practically it isn’t possible right now). One move in this regard was the ability for CSIS to move beyond domestic defense but I don’t think this was thought out enough. To be effective here, I agree with other senior CSIS members now retired, this costs money, lots of it. I also think the right way to do it is to divide the service as the British did with MI5 and MI6 and have a foreign and domestic service. I also question the appetite Parliamentarians will have in this area with the establishment of the new oversight committee that we have and would hope foreign intelligence ops (which can get “messy”) don’t become used for mud slinging and to score political points. We’ll see.
I digress, the main reason I don’t believe this argument works is because we’re talking about historical material. I don’t see (and I’ve said this many times) an ally starting a public diplomatic row because a Canadian citizen asked for a Canadian document that had some foreign intelligence from 1961 or ’51 or (heaven forbid!) 1971 (getting a little close to the present there). If we are that worried, we have bigger problems than historical writing. Consider the alternatives. I was dismayed to hear from former LAC staff that at DND’s “vault” of material, space was at such a premium that NATO historical docs were destroyed for lack of room, rather than being declassified and sent to the archives.
What about the benefits? Aside from the enlightenment of the people and their history, for the security field we could have a National Security Archive, like the US does (University of Toronto faculty were interested in this idea). We could have it benefit students, faculty, programs linked to it and all of that would indirectly benefit the intelligence field in Canada by raising their profile, and more engagement with the services and academia could further lead to building public trust, which in the days of disinformation and Russia, is more important than ever. The Archive could be linked to LAC, be online, it could be a beautiful thing. For universities, what’s the benefit? All of the above and….money. Example: funding grants to set it up, partnership grants with other institutions, more enrollment in programs (because students may actually have some sources to use!) money for grad students to help curate etc. etc. This shouldn’t be a hard sell. But it won’t happen until our governments start to understand the benefits the past can offer the present and that is the biggest shame.