It was revealed last week that during the 2010 G8 and G20 meetings held in Toronto, our country’s security appratus allowed the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct covert surveillance on Canadian soil during the week-long economic policy convention of world leaders and delegates.
And they weren’t operating out of some dimly-lit dripping basement full of flickering flourescents in one of Toronto’s seedier locales, like in some bad Hollywood spy film. They had the free run of the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, reminiscent of events from the long-forgotten Cold War, when U.S. and Soviet agents faced off against each other from embassies in myriad foreign capitals across the globe, intriguing to secure the destinies of their oppositional ideologies.
Top secret briefing notes leaked by U.S. whistleblower extrordinaire Edward Snowden — who recently blew the lid off the NSA’s ethically-questionable data-mining operations that literally bestrode the electronic globe — indicate the operations were also “closely co-ordinated with the Canadian partner”, namely the NSA’s Canadian counterpart, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC).
Most reasonable people would argue that’s probably taking good old cross-border solidarity a step too far. While there’s unfortunately no specifics on what the NSA and CSEC were actually up to at the G8/G20 meetings in 2010, we can be fairly sure they weren’t interested in what international leaders were having for breakfast or mundane chit-chat over high tea.
The leaked documents themselves don’t give us much of a clue. They say little more than the operation involved “providing support to policymakers”. That’s a relatively open-ended statement, espescially when it comes to the high-stakes game of international espionage. And we can be sure they weren’t offering “support” to anyone but Canadian and American policymakers.
Gaining an advantage over one’s economic and political adversaries, however fleetingly and in whatever capacity, would be a highly valuable investment, no matter what the ethical quandaries involved might be. Information — the right kind of information — can be infinitely more valuable than the most effective negotiating tactic. The right kind of information, used wisely, represents awesome power in the hands of those with the scruples and intelligence to manipulate it to the right effect. It could be the ultimate game-changer for the right man.
Still, we don’t know if the NSA and CSEC were actually passing information on to Canadian and American dignitaries and politicians at the event, or were just storing it up for a rainy day in blackmail files a la J. Edgar Hoover. Or perhaps it was just a symtom of an intelligence community run amok — they were so caught up with what they could do, they never stopped to think if they should. It’s probably surprisingly easy to circumvent a variety of laws and freedoms with some high-tech gadgets, a shiny NSA badge and a large red stamp that says “national security”.
That was the word, by the way, from the Prime Minister’s Office when asked to provide a statement on the issue. A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicated the government would not comment on “operational matters related to national security”. National security matters that apparently involve spying on the leaders of our G8 partners — just as matter of course. It’s a wonder that any nation in the world trusts another when revelations like this arise. Wouldn’t it be great if wars could be fought just by the leaders who started them?
The damage-control gurus over at the offices of CSEC were also quick to fire off their media missiles of denial over any perceived wrongdoing on the part of the organization, stating firmly that CSEC would never ask its foreign intelligence partners to “circumvent Canadian laws” and that under law CSEC does not “target Canadians anywhere or any person in Canada through its foreign intelligence activities”.
Which basically seems to be an admission that when anybody else sets foot on Canadian soil, apparently it’s open season for the espionage types, or allowing a foreign intelligence apparatus in through the back door to do what it likes, as long as it doesn’t violate any Canadian’s precious rights. I doubt the leaders of the rest of the G8 nations would be comforted by that rather cryptic statement, especially if what might have been revealed through some form of electronic surveillance during the conference might have endangered their own national security.
Toronto isn’t Tehran, or Pyongyang, or Damascus, or Moscow, or a dozen other foreign capitals in less than hospitable nations in the world, or a city with a record for covert espionage. Admittedly, this perhaps makes it a perfect target for conducting this kind of intelligence operation, not to mention the reputation of Canada as being one of the more progressive countries around.
This isn’t the first time whistleblower Edward Snowden has marred Canada’s gilded reputation on the international stage. Earlier documents leaked by the American ex-pat now safely ensconced in the arms of Mother Russia suggested Canada had hacked into phones and computers in Brazil’s department of mines.
But he’s unlikely to be hunted down by some kind of secret Canadian hit squad given its marching orders by a shadowy Ottawa bureaucrat, as incredibly laughable as that suggestion might be. And the Russians are unlikely to give him up, either — they enjoy seeing the profound public embarassment of their nominal Western allies.
It isn’t the Cold War anymore. James Bond and Jason Bourne aren’t about to swoop in and put an end to the evil Snowden and his leaky computer once and for all. Besides — something about it just doesn’t have that Hollywood ending. But heros of the digital age — the stalwart computer nerd and his trusty mouse off to save the world from the evil unethical bureaucrats and electronic data miners of the NSA — now we’re talking. Snowden: Master of Leaks, coming to a theatre near you in 2014. Never let it be said we don’t live in interesting times.
In today’s digital world, it’s true that the only secrets more fleeting than military ones are economic — and there can be little doubt this was ultimately what the NSA and CSEC were after in Toronto.
I guess there’s still something to be said for a good old paper filing cabinet and a lock and key. If you want to breach that kind of security system, unfortunately you’re stuck with reverting back to some good old-fashioned Cold War-style espionage.