Friday, March 01, 2019

The Electronic Polar Watch

This month marks a minor milestone for me: 30 years of writing about Canada's signals intelligence program. The first article I wrote on the subject, "Canada and Signals Intelligence: The Electronic Polar Watch," was published in March 1989 in the Ploughshares Monitor, the quarterly publication of Canadian peace organization Project Ploughshares.

I was on the Ploughshares staff at the time (I was there from 1986 to 2001), responsible for research and advocacy on Canadian defence policy matters, nuclear arms control, and other issues.

Given 30 years of hindsight and the benefit of the vastly greater amount of information now available about the agency, I wouldn't write the piece exactly the same way today. But I think it stands up pretty well.

Its heavy emphasis on nuclear weapons issues was partly a function of the times and of Project Ploughshares' particular concerns, but it also reflected the overwhelming focus of CSE's activities during this period. The agency had begun widening its targeting at the beginning of the 1980s, establishing embassy intercept sites in non-Cold War-related locations such as New Delhi and joining the ECHELON satellite monitoring program, but the Soviet Union remained, as it had been since the 1950s, by far its most important target.

The article was the first to reveal the agency's significant growth during the 1980s, citing figures that I'd found in the annual reports of what was then called the Public Service Staff Relations Board. CSE was unwilling to release any staff figures in those days, and I suspect the PSSRB numbers came as a bit of a shock.

It may not be coincidental that 1990 was the last year that the PSSRB published those numbers. Fortunately, by that time I had already stumbled across the monthly CSE numbers that Statistics Canada had begun publishing in its Federal Government Employment series in 1979.

Later in 1989 I wrote an article for This Magazine ("Spies Without Scrutiny," September 1989) updating the staff numbers, speculating about CSE's widening range of targets, and decrying the lack of any public review mechanism for the agency. (The Office of the CSE Commissioner wasn't created until 1996.)

Fun times.

Incidentally, it occurs to me that 2019 also marks 45 years since I first rode past the Sir Leonard Tilley Building on an OC Transpo bus and wondered what exactly the spies inside were up to. CBNRC, as it was still called in 1974, was only 28 years old back then.

Little did I know that I'd still be wondering about it 45 years later.


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