Sunday, October 18, 2015

Book review: Out of the Shadows

Ron Lawruk's self-published autobiography about his career at CSE, Out of the Shadows, the Life of a CSE Canadian Intelligence Officer (Friesen Press, 2015), contains some interesting tidbits about the organization's history, but anyone looking for substantive information about CSE's current mission and activities is likely to be disappointed.

In part, this is inevitable. The current CSE, with its heavy focus on Internet-based communications and active use of Computer Network Exploitation to steal information, is just not your granddad's signals intelligence agency, whereas that's exactly what it was during the period that Lawruk worked there (1958 to 1990), when it focused overwhelmingly on the military and civilian radio communications of the Soviet Union.

The information about the agency is also sparse because Lawruk took pains not to reveal classified information when he wrote the book, and he submitted it both to CSE and to the NSA for review prior to publication. This was no doubt prudent given the provisions of the Security of Information Act, but it does render the result somewhat devoid of detail, sometimes absurdly so. For example, the name of CSE's Chief from 1980 to 1989—Peter R. Hunt—is carefully excluded from the text even though it is well known publicly and even appears in a letter of commendation reproduced in the book.

Still, the odd unusual detail does make it through. This 1980 photo of Lawruk and various 291ers on HMCS Athabaskan, for instance, may be the only extant example of a bunch of SIGINTers holding up their SIGAD on a sign.

But such items are rare. This is definitely not Mike Frost's Spyworld, and in terms of writing style at least, we can be grateful for that. Lawruk is a former employee of CSE, but he is not a disgruntled one, and he is not out to blow whistles. He likes his former employer.

The lack of detail in the book is unfortunate, however, as Lawruk's career did take him to some interesting places at some interesting times. From 1968 to 1971, for example, he was the assistant to the Canadian Special Liaison Officer (CANSLO) at NSA. The CANSLO at the time was the same Peter Hunt who later became Chief (although you won't learn that in the book), and it was during this period that CBNRC, as it was still called, agreed to open its first embassy-based monitoring site and to help process the communications intercepted by the giant geosynchronous eavesdropping satellites that the U.S. had just begun launching into orbit.

Later, in the 1980s, when CSE was just starting to turn its attention to targets outside the Soviet bloc, Lawruk was appointed as the agency's first liaison officer to the Department of National Defence.

Both times were thus extremely interesting moments in the history of CSE, but sadly there's no insight into them here.

Other parts of his career were more mundane, reflecting the more typical SIGINT grunt work of collecting and collating small details from a myriad of sources to gradually build up a larger picture of some aspect of the target's activities. During the 1970s, for example, he spent a considerable amount of time studying the Soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet.

The topic of icebreakers leads to some rather crankish discussion of the implications of the current Russian icebreaker fleet—which Lawruk frequently lapses into calling Soviet—on Canada's future Arctic sovereignty. This is probably best ignored. On page 120 of the book Lawruk mentions that "our military customers preferred that SIGINT reports include only the facts we could prove with no analytical interpretation or conclusions. However, I eventually obtained permission to allow my reporters to add an ‘Analyst Comment’ to our reports if it was relevant." I'm left wondering if the customer wasn't right.

I'm glad he wrote the book, however.

Even without the details that I would have preferred, I found it a fascinating look into life inside the CSE of the past.

Not everyone may find this subject as interesting as I do, of course.

Update 10 November 2015: You can view some of the pages and search inside the book here.


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