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The CSIS Affair: What Were They Thinking?

Fadden evoked questions the CBC failed to ask. Like why he dropped his bombshell, and why now?

By Crawford Kilian 25 Jun 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Intelligence? CSIS chief Richard Fadden

The CBC's "inside report" on CSIS puts both institutions in a very strange light. Neither the broadcaster nor the spy agency seems to have thought through what it was doing.

The two-part series on CSIS looked like a pilot for a sequel to the late lamented Intelligence, one with the working title "Stupidity." It gave us ominous background music, faceless people walking around an ugly building, and painfully scripted exchanges between spymaster Richard Fadden and his underlings, all pretending as if the CBC cameras weren't in the room. Apparently they were worried about Somalia.

Fadden himself was the epitome of the bland bureaucrat, right down to the owlish horn-rim glasses and a face like rice pudding. A genius like Sir Alec Guinness could put such a face on George Smiley and make it the visage of modern espionage, but Fadden is clearly no genius.

Despite glimpses of multicultural recruits, Fadden's CSIS clearly relies on Canada's Anglo-Saxon bourgeoisie. We see him delivering a speech to a dinner of "security" people, all in formal evening wear and patiently listening to him drone through a summary of the Current Threats to the Realm. Clearly CSIS has modelled itself on the Ivy Leaguers who built the CIA after World War II.

Unasked questions

The questions Fadden evoked (and that the CBC failed to ask) was why he chose to take part in this exercise at all, why he chose to spin it as he did, and why he chose now, of all times, to do it.

CSIS, he told CBC's Brian Stewart, is dedicating most of its efforts to counter-terrorism. Coming on the heels of the Major Commission Report on the abject failure of CSIS to stop the destruction of Air India Flight 182, this did not reassure.

And given that terrorism has been the preferred threat since 9-11, perhaps it has lost its ability to stampede the public into spending enough on renditions, subsidies to Syrian torture experts, and the methodical breaking of treaties to which Canada is a signatory.

So espionage, Fadden told us, is the Next Big Threat. Spies are more active now, he claimed, than at any time since the Cold War, and maybe even the KGB in its heyday wasn't as assiduous as some current operators. So CSIS, Fadden said, would need more money for counter-espionage. And maybe start its own external espionage activities.

The yellow peril and homage to Joe McCarthy

Then he dropped his bombshell about "agents of influence" right in the lap of Peter Mansbridge. Some elected municipal officials in B.C., he said, were under the control of foreign powers. So were cabinet officers in two unnamed provinces. They were evidently members of ethnic minorities, manipulated by spies from the old country -- most likely China.

This was strikingly reminiscent of Senator Joe McCarthy's famous 1950 announcement of 205 confirmed Communists working in the U.S. State Department: vague enough to be scary, specific enough to sound credible.

But 2010 isn't 1950. Within a few hours, everyone from Gordon Campbell on down had damned and blasted Fadden's charges. Fadden had backtracked on his claim and said CSIS would have nothing further to say about these internal menaces.

Still, Fadden and his CBC interviewers have raised questions that deserve answers.

First, what did Fadden think he was going to achieve? Would Canadians flood their MPs with anxious emails, demanding more money for CSIS? Had the Harper government given him a discreet go-ahead? And if it had not, why did he think Harper would let his top spymaster blather away on TV about the threat of foreign spies and their domestic stooges?

Second, why had the CBC gone along with CSIS? Perhaps the full interviews it conducted with Fadden might have been more rigorous, but in what we saw, neither Stewart nor Mansbridge seriously challenged Fadden's assertions. They didn't ask him why he was suddenly making himself available. They didn't question his claims about intensified espionage (or why our other spy agencies like the Communications Security Establishment can't handle them).

The real agents of influence

Perhaps the CBC was trying to do the government a favour, to show the Conservatives that it's not the Liberal propaganda service it's supposed to be. But if Fadden wasn't operating with Harper's blessing, the CBC has only got itself into more trouble.

The whole uproar has embarrassed all concerned, but it's brought up some points worth discussing. Of course we're being spied on. And of course the country is full of agents of influence. Most of them are agents promoting the interests of the United States, along with the interests of Britain, France and Israel. A few are agents of China, Japan, India, Pakistan, and no doubt Afghanistan.

They're not just city councillors or MLAs; they're journalists, academics, corporate executives, and Ottawa mandarins. Promoting the interests of such foreign powers has paid off handsomely for them, and surely they believe they also serve Canada's interests.

So the CSIS affair has raised some real issues. But I don't think that was Richard Fadden's intention. Nor was it the CBC's intention. The likeliest outcome of this matter? The prompt and vengeful appointment of Richard Fadden to the presidency of the CBC.  [Tyee]

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