CSIS destroyed thousands of secret files

The RCMP Security Service was the scandal-plagued predecessor spy agency to our current scandal-plagued Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The Security Service was implicated in dozens of unsavoury acts during the Cold War, including spying on prominent Canadian activists, politicians, and religious leaders. However, much of the information collected will never see the light of day, even for the purposes of documenting the abuses that occurred — the vast majority of the secret files were destroyed by CSIS in 1988 under a questionable privacy justification (“Spy files on Diefenbaker, Pearson destroyed in 1989,” CBC News, 17 June 2012):

Canadian security agents compiled dossiers on former prime ministers John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson but the secret files were destroyed in the late 1980s, newly declassified records show.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which inherited the highly sensitive files from the RCMP’s security branch, says they were discarded to “respect the privacy rights” of the leaders, both of whom died in the 1970s.

Two intelligence historians dismissed the CSIS explanation as ridiculous.

“How could destroying these files protect Pearson and Dief’s privacy when they were already dead?” asked Steve Hewitt, a senior lecturer in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham in England.

“The notion they were destroyed for privacy reasons is just nonsensical,” added Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto professor who once prepared a history of Canada’s intelligence community for the government.

The confidential files on the two prime ministers — bitter rivals in the 1960s — were among hundreds the RCMP security branch amassed on politicians, senior public servants, judges and other “high profile” persons during the Cold War under what was known as the VIP Program.

Some RCMP files — including extensive ones on Quebec premier Rene Levesque and NDP leaders David Lewis and Tommy Douglas — wound up in the national Library and Archives.

Others were destroyed, including dossiers on Supreme Court Justice Gerald Fauteux, Saskatchewan politician Hazen Argue and federal public servant Arthur Plumptre, indicate the records obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Still other files, deemed to have ongoing value, were returned to active intelligence holdings.

CSIS, created in 1984, wrestled with the fate of the top secret files once held by the RCMP Security Service, disbanded following a series of scandals.

In a bid to uncover subversives, RCMP spies monitored a wide variety of groups and individuals, from academics and clergy to peace groups and environmentalists.

In 1988, James Kelleher, then federal minister responsible for CSIS, directed the spy service to comb through the mountain of resulting files.

Of 495,340 files reviewed, 438,218 — or more than 88 per cent — were destroyed. Another 28,820 were archived and 28,302 retained.

The decision to destroy the Pearson and Diefenbaker material seems calculated to “avoid the embarrassment that would accompany the revelations around such files,” said Hewitt.”

[Emphasis added.]

While the decision was taken decades ago, it is important to note that freedom of information is an ongoing concern. Canada has recently fallen out of the top fifty in freedom of information rankings, falling below countries like Angola, Colombia, and Niger. Without adequate access to government documents, abuses of authority — like those that occurred under the Security Service — are much less likely to come to light (“Canada falls out of top fifty in global freedom of information rankings,” Globe and Mail, 22 June 2012):

“As a country that was once among the world’s leaders in government openness, it is unfortunate that Canada has dropped so far down the list. Partly, this is the result of global progress, with which Canada has failed to keep pace,” says an analysis accompanying the rankings.

The Access to Information Act, which took force on July 1, 1983, allows requesters who pay $5 to request a variety of records in federal files — from correspondence and reports to briefing notes and hospitality receipts.

Departments and agencies are supposed to respond within 30 days, but often take extensions of up to half a year or more. Often little information is released even after a lengthy wait.

There have been repeated calls from pro-democracy groups and the federal information commissioner’s office to modernize the act for the 21st century.

In October 2009, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson rejected a House of Commons committee’s call to update the access law, saying it was a strong piece of legislation.

Tags: Cold War history, CSIS, RCMP Security Service, spying