At the moment Trudeau died, I was being watched by spies, dozens of spies.
Almost the entire alphabet was represented – CSIS, CSE, CIA, NSA, MI5. Especially MIB, Men in Black. Somber dark tones are obviously still in style for the discerning intelligence professional.
We were all at the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies. This is where many of the leading thinkers, celebrities and underbosses of the Anglo-Saxon spy world gather to trade secret handshakes, computer discs and plot world domination.
I arrived fashionably late for the three-day affair, minus cloak and dagger. Why wear a cloak when you’ve got a nametag? The speeches were already under way in Ottawa’s historic Château Laurier, next to Parliament Hill.
Inside were 200-odd spies — 90 percent of them men, 97 percent white. The only black people were out in the hall serving drinks. Not a single francophone voice could be heard.
Lyndon Johnson once said, “The CIA is made up of boys whose families sent them to Princeton but wouldn’t let them into the family brokerage business.”
Thirty-five years later, change seems to have passed this tight little fraternity by.
Even the end of the Cold War left it fundamentally unchanged. Today, intelligence agencies are on a resurgence and badder than ever.
For that spies are thanking the internet and a horde of other fashionable new security “threats” – Native people, antiglobalization activists, foreign companies, organized crime, even polluters.
“The future is far from bleak for SIGINT collectors around the world. Most feel it is a time of plenty,” said Matthew Aid, a former officer at the U.S. National Security Agency, which spies on the internet, phone calls and faxes (that’s SIGINT in spy speak, or Signals Intelligence).
“There will be more surreptitious entries, more theft of foreign encryption tools, more recruitment of foreign encryption personnel and more clandestine eavesdropping,” he assured the audience.
The future also looks bright for good old-fashioned secret agents. One former officer at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada’s civilian spy agency, told me privately that this country is “rife” with “agents of influence” – secret agents of foreign powers. Does that include Americans? I asked. “It would not be unwise to assume that,” he said with a cryptic smile.
Alistair Hensler, former director-general of operations at CSIS, said the covert agent’s human touch is needed more than ever to combat the “cyber-threat” and swarms of crafty new terrorist groups.
“HUMINT (Human Intelligence, or covert agents) in the ethnic community could help,” he told the conference.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After the Cold War, there were high hopes for a “peace dividend,” and it was expected that reductions in intelligence spending would be part of it. There was even discussion in the U.S. of shutting down the Central Intelligence Agency.
But intelligence reform has collapsed. President Bill Clinton stacked a commission reviewing the future of spying with intelligence insiders, who decided everything was fine as is. Today, the U.S. spends an estimated $30 billion on spying, 50 percent more after inflation than in 1980 at the height of the Cold War. (The actual figure is still classified, another sign of the unchanging times.)
In Canada, even after some downsizing, CSIS still has 2,000 employees, the same number as in 1984. This year’s federal budget handed the Solicitor General – who runs CSIS and the RCMP – a whopping $880-million funding increase over three years.
Why did intelligence reform lose its way? Some say Clinton had too much dirty baggage himself to take on the powerful spy world, including allegations that as Arkansas governor he was aware of ClA-connected cocaine shipments into the Mena, Arkansas, airport — charges detailed in the book Dark Alliance by Pullitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb (no relation).
But others say reform is a double-edged sword. When the U.S. Congress tried to restrict CIA operations in the 1970s, agency operatives simply worked harder to cover their tracks and stop leaving a paper trail, according to Louis Wolf, an editor at CovertAction Quarterly, a Washington, D.C.-based intelligence watchdog magazine.
I contacted Wolf later for his views on the conference. He told me the CIA covered its tracks by contracting out some of its most sensitive operations to trusted private firms not subject to congressional oversight.
If Congress didn’t approve funds for a covert operation, the CIA developed other sources of money, like arms deals with Iran or drug trafficking, he said. “If something is really dirty or compromising, they don’t want to show the American hand.”