A long time ago, I was known as the “spy guy” in the insular orbit of Canadian journalism. I earned the irritating moniker for a couple of reasons. I spent much – too much – of my career as an investigative reporter keeping a jaundiced watch over Canada’s secret services. I am the author of one of two books of any consequence written about the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the nation’s equivalent of Britain’s MI5. My 2002 exposé, Covert Entry, revealed a rogue agency rife with laziness, incompetence, corruption and lawbreaking.
Sadly, too few reporters, editors, columnists or editorial writers in Canada have made the effort to understand how CSIS functions with impunity and hold it to account. I am sharing this history and context because, lately, there has been a geyser of leaking of “top secret” stuff going on in Canada that is causing quite a tizzy. Who is doing the leaking remains, of course, a mystery. Why they are doing it and who they are giving the “top secret” stuff to, is not. Taken together, the leaks suggest that China and, in particular, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), may have interfered in at least two recent Canadian federal elections. The leaks and accusations about China brought back distant memories. As I said, a long time ago, when I was the “spy guy” working at the national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, I wrote several stories exploring how Beijing was allegedly working in cahoots with criminal gangs and other surrogates to inject its tentacles not only inside Canadian politics, but business and culture, too.
The series culminated in a front-page story divulging the unredacted contents of a joint, hush-hush probe by the CSIS and Royal Canadian Mounted Police – the country’s national police service – called “Project Sidewinder”.
In an astonishing decree, the then CSIS director ordered every copy of the politically explosive 23-page report destroyed because he considered it a “rumor-laced, conspiracy theory”. Someone saved one and gave it to me. Now, when I got a hold of the Project Sidewinder report, I have to admit, it was a bit of a thrill. The giddy moment evaporated quickly given three important things I knew about “intelligence” services like CSIS. First, they are large, myopic bureaucracies filled with glorified bureaucrats who generate reams of paperwork. Some of that paperwork may be accurate; a lot of it is not. Second, intelligence officers gather information. But being described as an intelligence officer is a lot more impressive than being described as an “information officer”. Having met and interviewed an unremarkable gallery of CSIS “information officers”, I can assure you they are not an impressive lot.
Third, simply because a piece of paperwork churned out by an “information officer” with a CSIS badge is marked with any sort of security classification – by the way, “top secret” is standard – does not make it true. So, while Project Sidewinder named prominent, “compromised” tycoons and companies operating in Canada and abroad, it would have been irresponsible to publish their identities relying on a piece of inside paperwork authored by some cops and “information officers”.
My careful and judicious editors, who were devoted, like me, to making sure we got it right, agreed. The happy “friendlies” getting the fresh paperwork, culled largely from public sources and marked “top secret” have not been so wary or reticent. Instead, like stenographers, they have published allegations as gospel that have questioned the loyalty and allegiance of sitting and former members of the Ontario legislature and the federal parliament based, in part, on stuff produced by “information officers” who carry rather common security clearances.
This is dangerous. It is also not surprising. These “friendlies” have in the past relied on anonymous “security” officials to insist that Maher Arar – a Canadian father, husband and software engineer – received training at the same al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan as convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam. All of it was a lie. The “friendlies” include editors sued for defamatory libel in 2015 by a former Ontario cabinet minister of Chinese descent after he was accused of being an “agent of influence” for China and a “threat” to Canada. This is all to say that Canadians should be cautious about accepting as fact stuff that is leaked to “friendly” journalists and news organisations who are not as cautious as they should be – despite having the imprimatur of an “intelligence” service stamped on it.
Meanwhile, a number of more thorough investigations have been struck to look into the allegations, even though China’s “interference” is already said to have had little or no influence on the outcome of any federal election. Unfortunately, there are only two reporters in the country whom I would count as having a keen and, more importantly, a critical appreciation of how CSIS exercises its covert roles and responsibilities: Jim Bronskill at the Canadian Press wire service and Matthew Behrens, a prolific freelance journalist.
Like me, Jim and Matthew, have, throughout their dogged snooping on the snoopers, resisted the easy temptation to become conduits for the so-called “intelligence infrastructure” whenever it leaks a juicy morsel meant to establish that CSIS is doing its job and doing it well. Like me, Jim and Matthew have never been considered “friendlies” whom CSIS or any part of Canada’s sprawling “intelligence infrastructure” can count on to hand “top secret” stuff to and then publish that stuff in the journalistic equivalent of ventriloquism.
Far from being the proverbial puppet, my reporting and book made me persona non grata among the banal, pedestrian men who ran CSIS. Here is the other, grating aspect of the China story – that has dominated Canadian politics for the past few weeks – which reeks of hypocrisy. The consensus among a preening batch of grandstanding reporters, columnists, editorial writers and politicians is that China’s “interference” in Canada’s elections is bad because China is a “bad actor” on the international stage. I missed all the hyperventilating outrage when Canada’s deputy prime minister, Chrystia Freeland, joined those Alexis-de-Tocqueville-like paragons of democracy, Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro and former US President Donald Trump and tried to engineer what amounted to a coup d’état and install their man, Juan Guaido, as the president of Venezuela. Freeland was praised by the same apoplectic columnists and editorial writers for interfering – openly and secretly – in Venezuela’s domestic affairs since, like China, the country’s president, Nicolas Maduro, is a “bad actor”. This is a news story oozing with congratulatory glee, published widely among sympathetic Canadian news outlets, heralding Freeland’s “key role” in playing a “behind the scenes” part in a failed attempt to depose the socialist leader.
When Canada interfered in Venezuela’s right to choose who will be president, most Canadian establishment columnists, editorial writers and politicians applauded. Canada is, they agree, a “good actor”. The sanctimony is as galling as it is instructive. But, these days, you won’t hear so much as a whisper about Canada’s not-so-secret record on the “interference” score since a capital city and newsrooms filled with amnesiac, spy-adoring hypocrites are too busy pointing an accusatory finger at China.