Monday, February 26, 2018

Canada's initial post-war SIGINT targets

When CSE, then called the Communications Branch of the National Research Council (CBNRC), began operations in September 1946, it had four SIGINT targets.

Set in consultation with Canada's U.S. and U.K. allies, those initial targets were selected primarily to provide a range of different training opportunities for the new agency. As the official History of CBNRC described it, "The basic purpose of these tasks was to provide initial training in producing intelligence from a variety of foreign communications and cipher systems."

Kurt Jensen's 2008 book Cautious Beginnings: Canadian Foreign Intelligence, 1939-51 identified those initial targets in general terms: "The cryptanalysis unit would focus on Europe, the Far East, and South America. The prime decryption assignments were in the French, Spanish, and Chinese languages, with only the latter representing a departure from wartime interests."

In fact, there was one other significant language in use... Portuguese.

Brazilian Portuguese.

The released versions of the History of CBNRC, particularly the 2015 release, provide a number of details about those initial tasks, but the identities of specific countries/languages tasked are redacted, meaning you have to work a bit to figure them out.

The best clues are to be found in the 2015 document's largely unredacted index, which has four significant gaps where the entries for Brazilian, Chinese, French, and Spanish used to be. As it happens, the 1990s release of the History redacted the names of those entries but not the lists of locations where the terms actually appear in the text. Thus, it is possible to check hypothesized names against the redacted terms in the 2015 text to see if their length and context make sense.

In the case of French, it is even possible to find the term unredacted in certain paragraphs (those that discuss bilingualism in the public service). The fact that no other term in those paragraphs matches the Fairley-to-GCCS gap in the index confirms that the redacted entry is indeed French. Chinese also appears once in the text in similar circumstances.

Collateral information, such as Marcel Roussin's background as a specialist in Latin American diplomatic history, is also helpful for solidifying the identifications.

With the four broad targets identified it is possible to fill in several of the blanks in the document, which in turn reveals a number of additional interesting details about these tasks:
  • The Spanish task was focused on Spanish naval forces and depended to a significant degree on traffic collected by GCHQ. This quickly proved to be a problem. Higher priorities forced GCHQ to drop its coverage of the Spanish target by the beginning of 1947, leading CBNRC to abandon the Spanish task not long afterward. (It was replaced by CBNRC's first Russian task.)
  • The French task focused on French military (i.e., army) and naval traffic. The Examination Unit had done a lot of work on both Vichy French and Free French systems during the war, so this was an area where Canada already had some experience. The French task also suffered from reductions in collection by GCHQ, however, and in October 1950 the decision was made to phase it out in favour of more Russian work.
  • The focus of the Brazilian task is not clear. It may have included diplomatic or commercial traffic instead of or in addition to service traffic. The Brazilian task remained active until November 1956.
  • The Chinese task, which seems to have consisted mostly of civil traffic, was the last to go, being dropped in November 1957. The end of the Chinese task coincided with CBNRC's decision, taken in conjunction with NSA and GCHQ, to focus the Canadian SIGINT effort from that time on almost entirely on the Soviet Arctic.


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