Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Mouth of CSIS

Fisking Jim Travers

Wikileaks drips acid on Canadian security blanket
December 02, 2010
James Travers

OTTAWA—Wikileaks are making voyeurs of us all. Titillating at best, the latest document dump is at its worst when it confuses a single scene with a full-length drama.

The peculiar case of former Canadian spymaster Jim Judd is particularly instructive. Caught in the glare of headlines, Judd stands exposed as seemingly loose-lipped. Closer examination argues that he was doing his job with the discretion that infamously escaped his immediate successor.

Not much Judd said behind closed doors to a senior U.S. State Department official would surprise anyone patrolling the front lines of law or security. It is widely believed among cops and spooks that courts dealing with criminals and terrorists tilt too leniently towards the rights and freedoms protecting the rest of us. It’s no surprise that CSIS is sensitive to scrutiny of its Guantanamo Bay interrogation of Omar Khadr or that an intelligence service would explore back channels to a country as secretive and meddling as Iran.

People were hung at Nuremberg for not recognizing international law when they saw it.

Lost in the furor is that Judd was doing what intelligence chiefs are supposed to do. Protecting vital national interests requires contributing to an information flow between allies that disproportionately benefits this country. Frank concerns, strong opinions and early warnings lubricate an exchange that’s essential to U.S. confidence in Canada.

Judd's job was whatever we told him it was. He was a civil servant. He was not a self-appointed guardian of some weird code of honour shared with like-minded colleagues in NATO.

Judd’s private candour is in stark and illustrative contrast to current CSIS director Dick Fadden’s public comments. Stunning the security community, Fadden told the CBC that unnamed municipal officials and provincial ministers are under the influence of foreign powers.

Who, exactly, is the "security community"?

Along with smearing ethnic politicians coast to coast, Fadden’s still unproven allegations raised concerns that he had breached the CSIS Act by laying bare an undercover operation. Just as remarkably, Fadden’s recklessness was widely mistaken for openness.

Wikileaks is now surfing that same misunderstanding. Information stripped of context and spread without accountability offers roughly the same attractions as a peep show.

What we know about the leaks is that they have more in common with vile gossip than state secrets. It’s said that a secret is something told to one person at a time. The low-level system harvested by Wikileaks — and now shut down — was shared simultaneously by nearly three million secret sharers.

Well this is at best, crap. The cables reveal a literate American diplomatic corps who were alive to reality. Apart from that, the Secretary of State is on record as asking her staff to steal personal information from the UN Secretary-General. Furthermore, Jim Judd is on record as regarding a Supreme Court ruling [2008 SCC 28] delivered six months previously and stating unequivocally that Omar Khadr's treatment at Guantanamo was a breach of international humanitarian law - a.k.a "war crime" - as a "distraction."

What we don’t know is who decided what to leak — or not — and to what end. That’s every bit as important as, say, understanding the context of Judd’s comments or why the Prime Minister didn’t immediately sack a talkative top spy who forgot that elected ministers, not appointed bureaucrats, are accountable to Canadians.

And how would we know any of this were it not for WikiLeaks?

Wikileaks have modest merit. A few unfiltered streams of light gleam through the jungle of trivia. There’s no great harm to the state, and perhaps some positive effect to behaviour, in publicly parading all too-human foibles.

But there are also dangers. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, diplomacy is the jaw-jaw before war-war and there are significant risks in trivializing it merely to embarrass the powerful.

That's not what Churchill said, or meant.

Lessons, too, drip from the leaks. To assume the privacy of any message dispatched into the ether of an information age is patently foolish. Shooting the messenger is no less silly for those now desperately dragging attention away from the awkward publication of their antics by trying to ratchet minor revelations into a global threat.

Most of all the leaks are an urgent reminder that democracy is about more than eavesdropping. It downloads on citizens a responsibility to set aside titillation and voyeurism long enough to recognize that sometimes national interests are best protected by confidential conversations.

So we should defer to our betters, who got us into Dieppe, got the Americans into Vietnam, and got Canada into Kandahar, without any public accountability. Jim, you're right on the national security state money. Why don't you start with the Magna Carta and get back to us?

James Travers' column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.