Friday, November 01, 2013

Fifth Estate X three

The CBC's Linden MacIntyre, co-host of the investigative journalism show "the fifth estate", comments on the movie "The Fifth Estate" and the importance of whistleblowers ("Why whistleblowers are crucial for democracy: Linden MacIntyre," CBC News, 30 October 2013):
In a memorable scene from the movie The Fifth Estate, a journalist opines that speeches in the British House of Commons were once so secret that people caught leaking them to the public were hanged for it. Not exactly true - but the Commons debates were conducted secretly, and people went to prison for reporting them in pamphlets. Public outrage, fired by whistleblowing, eventually put a stop to secrecy in parliament.

The modern pamphlet is a blog or tweet, the brown envelope is now a tiny thumb-drive with the information-carrying capacity of a truckload of paper documents. And from the opposing perspective, technology has also enabled institutions to delve deeply into private lives for law enforcement, commerce and the vague new project known as “public safety”.


The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham put it strongly - but his words have been embraced in principle and often quoted by politicians and jurists while making and interpreting our laws: “In the darkness of secrecy, sinister interest and evil in every shape have full swing.”

In another essay more than 200 years ago, Bentham said, “Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government”.

Those are words that whistleblowers live by, which makes them auditors of governance and guarantors of our democracy.
When it comes to secrecy in Canada's government and in particular with respect to the intelligence community, there's a third "Fifth Estate" that bears mentioning -- the CBC documentary that lifted CSE (then called CBNRC) out of the shadows and onto the parliamentary agenda in 1974.

CSE's Information Kit tells the story as follows:
In 1974 the television program "The Fifth Estate" broadcast an exposé of Canadian involvement in signals intelligence. The program revealed the existence of the hitherto low-profile CBNRC, and explored the nature of its signals intelligence program and its US partners. The Fifth Estate's revelations were raised in the House of Commons over the next week. As a result of the unwelcome publicity, the government soon transferred Canada's SIGINT and Communications Security organization to the Department of National Defence portfolio, and renamed it the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).
In fact, the television program "the fifth estate" did not exist in 1974. It was a documentary entitled "The Fifth Estate: The Espionage Establishment" -- with no relation to the later program -- that the CBC broadcast on 9 January 1974. (See the comment by James Dubro at the end of this post if you don't want to take my word for it.)

And the discussion of CBNRC was actually a relatively small part of the broadcast.

But it did lead to a series of questions in the House of Commons and very likely played a major role in CBNRC's subsequent transfer to the Department of National Defence as CSE.

I have pointed out that CSE gets this particular detail of its own history wrong as least once before on this blog. It may not be a very big detail (not as big as getting their own budget wrong by $65 million, for example), but you'd think they could get it right nonetheless.

Perhaps no one there reads this site. They do, after all, have real jobs to do.

So I have a plan. If it doesn't get fixed this time, I'll e-mail the information to the Brazilian Minister of Mines and Energy and ask him not to tell anybody.


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