Long ago I was known as the “spy man” in the insular lane of Canadian journalism.
I earned the annoying nickname for a number of reasons. I’ve spent much—too much—of my career as an investigative reporter jaundicedly monitoring Canada’s secret services.
I am the author of one of two books of any importance written about the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the national equivalent of Britain’s MI5. My revelation from 2002, Hidden entryrevealed a rogue agency full of laziness, incompetence, corruption and lawbreaking.
Unfortunately, too few reporters, editors, columnists or editorial writers in Canada have bothered to understand and hold accountable how CSIS functions with impunity.
I’m sharing this history and context because there’s been a geyser of “top secret” stuff leaking in Canada lately that’s causing quite a stir.
Who does the leaking, of course, remains a mystery. Why they do it and who they give 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, way back when I was the “spy man” working at the national newspaper The Globe and Mail, I wrote several stories exploring how Beijing was allegedly in cahoots with criminal gangs and other surrogates to spread its tentacles. inject not only into Canadian politics, but also into business and culture.
The series culminated in a front page story revealing the unredacted contents of a joint, tacit investigation by the CSIS and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – the nation’s national police force – dubbed “Project Sidewinder”.
In an astonishing decree, the then-CSIS director ordered every copy of the politically explosive 23-page report destroyed, deeming it a “rumour-riddled conspiracy theory.” Someone kept one and gave it to me.
When I got my hands on the Project Sidewinder report, I must admit it was a little thrilling. The dizzying moment quickly passed considering three important things I knew about “intelligence agencies” like CSIS.
First, they are big, short-sighted bureaucracies full of glorified bureaucrats generating piles of paperwork. Some of that paperwork may be correct; it’s not much.
Second, intelligence officers collect information. But being described as an intelligence officer is much more impressive than being described as an “information officer”. I’ve met and interviewed an unremarkable gallery of CSIS intelligence officers, and I can assure you they’re not an impressive bunch.
Third, simply because a piece of paperwork issued by an “information officer” with a CSIS badge is marked with some sort of security rating — btw, “top secret” is standard — doesn’t make it true.
So while Project Sidewinder has named prominent, “compromised” tycoons and companies operating in Canada and abroad, it would have been irresponsible to publish their identities based on a piece of internal paperwork prepared by some agents and ” educators”.
My careful and judicious editors, who, like me, were committed to making sure we got it right, agreed.
The lucky “friendlies” who get the new paperwork, largely pulled from public sources and marked “top secret,” haven’t been as wary or coy. Instead, like stenographers, they have published allegations as gospel that have questioned the allegiances and loyalties of incumbent and former members of the Ontario legislature and federal parliament, based in part on things produced by “information officers” who have fairly common security clearances. .
This is dangerous.
Nor is it surprising.
These “friendly parties” have historically relied on anonymous “security officials” to insist that Maher Arar – a Canadian father, husband and software engineer – receive training at the same al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan as convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam . It was all a lie.
The “friendlies” include editors sued in 2015 for defamatory libel by a former Ontario minister, of Chinese descent, after he was accused of being an “influence agent” for China and a “threat” to Canada.
All this is to say that Canadians should be careful about accepting as fact things that have been leaked to “friendly” journalists and news organizations who are not as careful as they should be – despite the label of an “intelligence agency”.
Meanwhile, a number of more thorough investigations have been launched to investigate the allegations, even though China’s “interference” would have had little or no impact on the outcome of any federal elections.
Unfortunately, there are only two reporters in the country who I would say have a keen and, more importantly, critical appreciation of the way CSIS exercises its covert roles and responsibilities: Jim Bronskill of the Canadian Press Wire Service and Matthew Behrens, a prolific freelance journalist.
Like me, Jim and Matthew, in their tenacious snooping on the snoops, have resisted the easy temptation to become conduits for the so-called “intelligence infrastructure” when it leaks a juicy bit intended to establish that CSIS is and is doing its job it good.
Like me, Jim and Matthew have never been considered “friends” on whom CSIS or any part of Canada’s vast “intelligence infrastructure” can count on to pass “top secret” stuff 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.
Meanwhile, here is the other, harrowing aspect of the China narrative – which has dominated Canadian politics in recent weeks – that smacks of hypocrisy.
The consensus among a smoothed group of leading reporters, columnists, editorial writers and politicians is that China’s “interference” in the Canadian election is bad because China is a “bad player” on the international stage.
I missed all the hyperventilating outrage when Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland, joined those Alexis-de-Tocqueville-esque paragons of democracy, Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro and former US president Donald Trump, in trying to conceive what amounted to a coup d’état. état and install their man, Juan Guaido, as president of Venezuela.
Freeland has been praised by the same apoplectic columnists and editorial writers for his meddling — overt and covert — in Venezuela’s internal affairs, since, like China, the country’s president, Nicolas Maduro, is a “bad actor.”
This is a news story brimming with congratulatory glee, widely publicized among sympathetic Canadian news outlets, announcing Freeland’s “key role” in playing a “behind the scenes” role in a failed attempt to depose the socialist leader .
When Canada interfered in Venezuela’s right to choose who becomes president, most Canadian-established columnists, editorial writers and politicians applauded. Canada is, they agree, a “good actor”.
The sanctity is as harsh as it is instructive.
But these days you hear little more than a whisper about Canada’s not-so-secret record on the “interference” score, as a capital city and newsrooms full of amnesiac, spy-worshiping hypocrites are too busy pointing the finger at an accusing finger at China.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.