Friday, February 07, 2020

Wark on Canada's Arctic SIGINT mission

An important new article by intelligence historian Wesley Wark tells the story of how Canada's signals intelligence effort came by 1957 to focus almost entirely on the polar basin and the Soviet Arctic, taking the lead on the region for the entire UKUSA community (Wesley Wark, "Favourable geography: Canada’s Arctic signals intelligence mission," Intelligence and National Security, published online 6 February 2020). Wark's article is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the Canadian signals intelligence effort.

When the Communications Branch of the National Research Council (CBNRC), as CSE was known prior to 1975, was created in 1946, it worked on a variety of minor targets that had been agreed in consultation with its U.K. and U.S. partners, but the Soviet Union was not among them. That changed not long afterwards, but it took a decade for the Soviet north to become the agency's almost exclusive target.

Wark highlights three developments that were necessary to that evolution:
  • Creation of an Arctic intercept capability;
  • Commitment of sufficient resources to CBNRC and the SIGINT program as a whole; and
  • Agreement of the Allies to cede the Arctic mission to Canada.
Each was a struggle, and failure to overcome any one of these challenges "would have doomed the effort." Each is discussed in turn.

(The map above, derived from the one in the article, shows the strategic intercept stations that collected communications in support of CBNRC's SIGINT effort during the post-war period; stations that were used only for radio direction-finding are not shown. See here for the years of operation of the various stations.)

The fact of CBNRC's move to an Arctic focus has been known for some time, but this is the only place where that evolution has been laid out with such clarity and detail, in part because those details have only recently been declassified by the government.

As Wark explains, his account "draws primarily from two recently declassified Canadian narratives," one of which he himself wrote:

(1) Wesley Wark, History of the Canadian Intelligence Community, 1945–1970, Chapter 5, ‘Postwar SIGINT: The Road to the Arctic,’ draft produced for the Privy Council Office, 1998–2002, redacted version obtained through Access to Information (July 2019). Unfortunately eight pages of this chapter (nearly 25%) remain redacted in their entirety while 65% of the 34 pages of this chapter suffer from partial redactions. The history is held by the Privy Council Office, who are responsible for Access decisions.

(2) Kevin O’Neill, History of CBNRC (August 1987), volume I, chapter 5, ‘Interception at Stations,’ redacted version obtained through Access to Information. The history is held by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).

I made the latter document available for download here. Now, with the gracious agreement of the original Access requestor, Jim Bronskill, I am able to make the former document available as well.

This is the second major contribution that Wark has made in recent months to understanding the history of the Canadian signals intelligence program. The earlier article looked at the CANUSA communications intelligence agreement reached by Canada and the U.S. in 1949. (See Wesley Wark, “The road to CANUSA: how Canadian signals intelligence won its independence and helped create the Five Eyes,” Intelligence and National Security, published online 7 November 2019; mirrored here.)

Now if we could just get him to write the entire history of the agency!

That, however, would require a level of cooperation and transparency by CSE and the broader Canadian intelligence authorities that does not seem to be in the offing. I'd be happy to be proven wrong though.

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