Saturday, October 02, 2010

A tale of two frictions

Here's a little bombshell that was dropped back in June to the apparent notice of nobody around these parts. According to Richard Aldrich, professor of international studies at the University of Warwick and author of the recent GCHQ: The uncensored story of Britain's most secret intelligence agency, the United States has cut off Canada's access to U.S. intelligence twice in recent decades as a result of policy disputes between the U.S. and Canadian governments (Richard Aldrich, "Allied code-breakers cooperate -- but not always," Guardian, 24 June 2010).

The first incident reportedly took place during the run up to the 1991 Gulf War:
After Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Washington asked Ottawa to assist by sending naval ships to the Gulf. The Canadian fleet was out-dated and equipped for anti-submarine warfare. Fearing the threat from aircraft and Exocet missiles, the Canadians protested that their ships would be too vulnerable.

Washington signalled its intense displeasure by cutting off the intelligence flow and so the "screens went blank". Ottawa had a change of heart and three days later communications were restored. In honour of this memorable episode in allied relations, Ottawa's defence chiefs christened their Gulf naval deployment "Operation Friction".
The second incident he reports was sparked by the Canadian government's decision to establish the Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar:
In 2005, the Americans shut off the flow of intelligence once more because Canada had set up an inquiry into the case of Maher Arar, a citizen who had been the victim of rendition to Jordan and Syria. The inquiry team had been allowed to look at classified American material – against Washington's wishes.
Whether or not these accounts, based on confidential interviews, are correct (and I have no reason to think that they aren't), they highlight a real trade-off that comes with Canada's participation in the UKUSA intelligence community.

Our intelligence-sharing arrangements give Canada access to an enormous range of information that it would not otherwise get (albeit not always accurate: see Mass Destruction, Weapons of), but our contribution to that sharing also advances foreign, defence, and security policy priorities that are not always our own, and fear that our access may be lost may lead us sometimes to bow to those priorities in our own actions.

Nicky Hager addresses these issues forcefully in Secret Power, his book about New Zealand's role in the UKUSA community. And James Littleton raised the same sorts of issues for Canada in his 1986 book Target Nation.

In the specific incidents that Aldrich mentions, it is difficult to know what effect the intelligence cut-offs may have had. Would the Mulroney government not have sent Canadian forces to participate in the Gulf War in the absence of a threat to our intelligence access? That doesn't seem likely, although the choice of forces or the timing of their dispatch might have been different. And the Arar Inquiry did go ahead, although of course we don't know what information may have been withheld from it.

Still, it is clear from similar incidents in the history of the UKUSA community that the threat of cut-offs and the fear of cut-offs do at least sometimes play a role in the decision-making surrounding contentious policy issues.

Aldrich's GCHQ deals with that question as it pertains to the U.K. very well, and I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the history of that agency and its role in British foreign and defence policy. (It might, however, be best to wait for an updated edition in paperback -- more about the book in a later post.)

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