Monday, July 5, 2010




We all love spies. They're tight-lipped, elusive and ethereal as ghosts -- thus their nickname: "spooks." Spies' devious and mysterious intrigues have captivated the public's imagination for centuries.

Just think how unsophisticated your country would look if its top spy were outed as being clumsy and garrulous. Those are the kinds of labels that several Canadian pundits, politicians, and so-called intelligence "experts" tried to slap on the forehead of Richard Fadden when he opened his mouth in an unusual way last week.

Fadden is the recently appointed head of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS). Trained as a lawyer, from 2006 to 2009 he served as deputy minister of citizenship and immigration. He was also Canada's Security and Intelligence Coordinator during and after Sept. 11, 2001.

When it was announced in June 2009 that Fadden was replacing Jim Judd as head of CSIS, the Canadian Press described him as "a career bureaucrat known for cool-headed thinking." The story quoted Prime Minister Stephen Harper as saying "Fadden's strong leadership qualities and sound judgment make him well-suited to the task of head spymaster."

Within a year, Fadden's expertise and judgment apparently all dribbled away. In a CBC interview conducted by veteran newsmen Brian Stewart and Peter Mansbridge, he alleged that foreign governments -- he strongly suggested that China was one of them -- were infiltrating Canadian politics and exerting influence over Canadian politicians, both at the provincial and municipal level.

This allegation doesn't come close to the revelation Tuesday that U.S. authorities had arrested Russian spies, some posing as Canadians, who have allegedly participated in what has been described as "a plot to penetrate the innermost circles of American power."

No, Fadden was merely talking about China and others trying to exert influence over Canadian politicians by offering them trips and other niceties in an effort to make them more sympathetic to the interests of their nations.

That kind of thing has been going on for a long time in Canada and other western nations. The South African apartheid regime was notorious for its hospitality toward Canadian members of Parliament during the 1970s and 1980s. Israel and Taiwan do likewise today.

I find this practice reprehensible. Politicians need to get out in the world and see up close what other countries are doing. But our Parliament should be paying for these trips to ensure that there are genuinely no strings attached.

Fadden did Canadians a service by pointing out that too many Canadian politicians are effectively on other countries' dole.

For this, he got lambasted. Professor Wesley Wark of the University of Toronto's Munk Centre pronounced with academic grandeur that Fadden's feet should be held to the fire and that he should offer to resign. Reg Whitaker, retired professor of political science at York University, said he found Fadden's observation "extraordinary and astonishing, because there was no gain for him to say it."

MP Olivia Chow said Fadden's charges damaged foreign relations and that "baseless spy stories belong in novels and movie theatres." I wonder what Chow thinks of that revelation from the U.S. that sleeper agents from Russia have taken up residence, some disguised as Canadians, and have a mission to influence American politics.

I believe that Whitaker is quite wrong in saying that there was no gain to be had in Fadden's saying what he said.

First, as I just pointed out, he put Canadian politicians on warning about taking trips and other freebies from foreign countries.

Secondly, CSIS has lurked in the dark corners for far too long. Canadians need to know what kind of work CSIS does, and why it is important to our country. The agency has been underfunded for decades, although a recent $300-million infusion from the government has helped somewhat. But more needs to be done. CSIS's overseas operations are pitifully understaffed to the point that (except in Afghanistan) Canada doesn't really have an overseas intelligence operation worthy of the name. That puts us alone among the members of the G20 who met in Toronto last week.

Gathering intelligence isn't just about people with secret codes playing silly clandestine games. It's about making your country's leaders more intelligent about what threats to Canada's political system and Canadian industries are out there, and passing on that intelligence when those threats put Canada at a disadvantage.

At one point in the CBC interview Peter Mansbridge stated flatly that CSIS is involved in espionage. In fact, CSIS is involved in counter-espionage. There's a big difference. We need to defend our political system and our industries from vested interests in other countries.

Until Canadians have a better idea of what CSIS does and why it is useful to them, politicians will continue to skimp on funding. There are no votes in providing a capable national intelligence agency that nobody knows anything about.

Fadden reminded us that CSIS is on the lookout for nefarious foreign activities. He and his immediate predecessor, Jim Judd, have been trying to drag CSIS out of the shadows so that Canadians understand the big picture with regard to international mischief.

The sad part is that Fadden is now liable to chill into silence, and we Canadians will stop learning about what we all need to know. He has been -- may I say it --spooked.

His critics were certain that his comments would all but destroy the meeting between Stephen Harper and Chinese President Hu Jintao scheduled later in the week.

Funny thing. The prime minister's office said the subject didn't come up in the visit with the Chinese president, which apparently went exceedingly well. I guess both these guys know how countries go after what they want.

We should too. I thank Richard Fadden for his reminder.

Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate committee on national security and defence.