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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not dispute your critique of our not using credits the way we hould have. Most welcome comments.
We started out going to do a bit of history of RCN Suprad Stations and then got carried away.
I read so many books, papers and bulletins I quite frankly have little idea where some of the material came from.
You are quite correct and whatever we may do in the future you will be credited appropriately. Thanks for being so gentle with us.

February 24, 2006 8:05 pm  
Blogger Bill Robinson said...

Hi, George.

Thanks for your comments. It's rather astounding how much information is available in little tidbits here and there once you start looking for it, isn't it? The serious secrets aren't lying around for the taking (very often), but there's no end to the lesser stuff, and I appreciate how much work you must have gone to to pull it all together.

If you ever have updates or other information you'd like to see disseminated, I'd be happy to post it here on the blog.



February 25, 2006 1:43 pm  

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