Thursday, February 23, 2006

Book review:
History of Canadian Signals Intelligence and Direction Finding

I received my copy of the History of Canadian Signals Intelligence and Direction Finding (publication details here) a few days ago. Woohoo! Just like Christmas in February! Compiled by two former denizens of the Supplementary Radio System, Robert Lynn Wortman and George T. Fraser, the book was written primarily for current and former members of the Canadian Forces Information Operations Group and its predecessor organizations. But anyone who is at all interested in the field of Canadian signals intelligence will consider its $25.00 cost money very well spent.

Amply illustrated with dozens of black & white and colour photos and maps, the 149-page book contains discussions of the genesis and evolution of radio direction-finding and SIGINT intercept operations in Canada, a chronology of significant developments, and descriptions of the many current and former radio intelligence and DF sites in Canada. It also contains a couple of interesting new anecdotes about Canadian SIGINT activities, although barely enough to whet the appetite from my point of view.

The authors do not say whether they submitted their text to the government for approval prior to its publication, but the book does come with the enthusiastic endorsement of the current CFIOG commander, and it is evident that the authors were careful not to reveal material that might still be considered secret. Indeed, much of the material in the book is already in the public domain. Still, you would have to look awfully long and hard if you wanted to find it on your own; nowhere has it been compiled as thoroughly and conveniently as here. And the book does contain new material as well.

This is not what you would call a work of academic history. Canadian SIGINT activities are placed only in the most minimal of Canadian and international context, there is very little analysis of the role and value of Canada's activities, the focus is almost exclusively on the military end of Canadian SIGINT (CBNRC/CSE receives hardly any mention at all), and there is only the most minimal crediting of sources. There is no way to tell when information is well-established fact and when it is questionable or simply hearsay.

This is not to dismiss the book. The material that I write about Canadian SIGINT is not academic history either. Nor does the book need to be. It is still a very useful compendium of information, and it will serve its primary audience well.

I do want to point to one significant difference between this book and the material that I have written, however, and to one especially notable similarity. The significant difference is that I do try to footnote items when possible so people can check sources of information for themselves. I wish the authors had done the same. The notable similarity is somewhat related: several of the passages in this book were originally written by me.

Consider these sentences about Leitrim on page 118 on the book, for example (and it is just one example):
In 1946, the station's complement was 75 personnel. By 1959, it had grown to about 200, by 1966, it was about 250, and, by the mid-1970s, it was approximately 350.

I wrote those sentences, which first appeared on my CFS Leitrim webpage (part of an unofficial CSE website that I used to maintain). I don't know whether Wortman and Fraser found them on my website, which no longer exists; they may well have found this unauthorized, uncredited, and out of date copy on the website of James Atkinson (who has the gall to claim copyright over it). My little page has got around quite a bit over the last 10 years. Even the Department of National Defence uses a slightly modified, also uncredited, version of the page's first two paragraphs on the DND Leitrim page.

I'm pleased when people use information that I've dug up; that's why I put it on the Internet in the first place. But it does miff me that someday someone is going to look at Atkinson's website, or DND's website, or Wortman and Fraser's book, and say, "so that's where Robinson got that stuff! He could at least have credited the author instead of plagiarizing it!"

Quotation marks. Credits. Footnotes. They're really not that hard to use, people.

Anyway, back to the book. If you're at all interested in Canadian SIGINT (and if you're not, why in heck are you reading this blog?), buy Wortman and Fraser's book. You won't regret it.

In the news: CFS Alert

The Edmonton Journal reported today ("Alarm sounded on future of Alert base: Research station depends on Tories' Kyoto stance," Edmonton Journal, 23 February 2006) that the future of Alert "may rest on the Conservatives' decision on Canada's commitment to the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change."

But as far as I can tell this does not in any way mean that the future of Canadian Forces Station Alert is on the line. The Atmospheric Environment Service weather station at Alert (see photo below) is a separate facility located adjacent to the Canadian Forces Station. Originally one of several Canada-US Joint Arctic Weather Stations built in the Canadian North during the early days of the Cold War, the Alert weather station began operations in 1950, six years before the RCAF opened the experimental SIGINT site that later became CFS Alert.

It is unclear to me why opting out of the Kyoto Protocol would endanger even the weather station at Alert, unless the new Conservative government has also decided that it would prefer to be in the dark about the global climate crisis that is bearing down on us like a Mack truck. As the article notes, the government did consider closing the weather station in the early 1990s, at a time when Environment Canada, like other government departments, was facing dramatic budget cuts. But an international outcry at the prospect of the station's demise ensured that it survived on that occasion. Today, with a more secure budget climate and an even scarier global climate, it hardly seems likely that the site will be closed any time soon.

What would endanger the weather station is a decision by DND to shut down CFS Alert. The weather folks have come to depend pretty heavily on the Canadian Forces for transportation and infrastructure at Alert, and it is conceivable that Environment Canada might choose to abandon the site if it had to provide all those services on its own.

But to the best of my knowledge DND is not considering closing CFS Alert. Osama and his boys are probably not about to sneak over the Arctic Ocean by dog sled, but I doubt there is any shortage of other SIGINT targets to keep Alert's antennas busy at the moment.

[Update: 3 May 2006
CBC News reported in April (Costly fuel prompts cuts at northern military station, CBC News, 13 April 2006) that an unspecified number of military jobs at Alert would be replaced by civilian contractors because of "rising fuel costs". At the same time, however, Major Gioseph Anello told CBC that some facilities at Alert are being modernized: "We are recapitalizing. We are rationalizing to provide better sustainability up in Alert." The clear implication is that CFS Alert will not be closing anytime soon. The changes are presumably the result of the CFS Alert Modernization Project, which began in January 2003.

Update II: 7 May 2006
More on developments at Alert (Nathan VanderKlippe, "Military downsizes Arctic spy outpost", Edmonton Journal, 5 May 2006).]

Monday, February 06, 2006

CSE growth continues

The latest staff figures published by the Public Service Human Resources Management Agency indicate that CSE now has 1,528 staff members, up 53 from the 1,475 reported in October. CSE is currently undergoing the largest expansion in its history, with the target staffing figure of 1,650 "full-time equivalents" scheduled to be achieved in 2007. (More about the expansion here.)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

New book on Canadian SIGINT

A new book has been published on Canadian SIGINT. Entitled The Canadian History of Signals Intelligence and Direction Finding, the 149-page spiral bound book was written by Lynn Wortman and George Fraser. I haven't seen a copy yet so I can't say anything about its contents, but it sounds well worth reading.

The book seems to have been privately published, so you'll need to contact the authors if you want to buy a copy. Here's the info that I have:
Besides providing a comprehensive history and chronology of the Signals Intelligence trade in Canada, there are numerous b/w and colour photos illustrating the bases where it all took place.

Format: 8.5 "x 11" , 149 pages, soft covered, spiral binding.

The links below provide a printable order form and a review of the book by several individuals.

Cost of the book including shipping and handling is $25.00 anywhere in Canada. For shipping outside Canada, please enquire about the price by contacting Lynn Wortman at:
lynn.wortman [at]

[Update 23 February 2006: See my review of the book here.]