SPIES! Mark Bourrie on CSEC’s new digs, the history of intelligence gathering, and the modern spy fetish

This article first appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of Ottawa Magazine.

By Mark Bourrie 

People shopping at the strip mall at Blair and Ogilvie roads often wonder what’s going to be inside the big white building that has risen in the woods just across the road. It’s the size of a domed stadium. Could it be a zoo? Another museum? Will it be a new national library full of books and art?

No — but the correct answer nevertheless gives a thrill to children and adults alike. The building will be full of spies. Fairly soon, the neighbouring East Side Mario’s and Starbucks should be the scene of a lot of sotto voce conversations about things most of us would never understand. Because the spies at Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) aren’t James Bond types ham-fistedly whacking bad guys; no, they’re the nerd army, some of Canada’s brightest minds hired because they’re brilliant at math and skilled at keeping secrets. They intercept phone calls, radio signals, and internet traffic to track down terrorists and foreign spies. They also break codes — and to do that in the 21st century, you need to be a computer genius or a math prodigy. CSEC works hard to recruit the best of the brightest of the country’s geeks, who are being rewarded with a brand spanking new building of epic proportions.

Illustration by Fred Sebastian
Illustration by Fred Sebastian

With the new CSEC headquarters, that corner of Ottawa is set to become the country’s ground zero of domestic and foreign spying, not to mention the focal point of the fantasy life of hundreds of paranoiacs. The move — CSEC is relocating from an old CBC headquarters at Bronson and Heron to a sparkling new palace — shows just how much Stephen Harper’s government values its spies.

The $1.2-billion spy headquarters is believed to be the most expensive government building that has ever been built in this country. The original price tag was $880 million. So, in a way, it’s only fitting that it resembles, at least in outward design, the Velodrome at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, itself a symbol of Canadian white elephantry. The 72,000-square-metre building is a public-private partnership with Plenary Group, a company that specializes in contracting for the construction of government buildings. In The Globe and Mail, Colin Freeze described it as “a 90-storey building turned on its side.” Some of its luxurious proposed features, such as a grand fireplace, were cut from the final design, but it’s still being called a spy palace. The building is entirely open concept; outside, the woodlot will be landscaped with gardens, nature tails, and duck ponds.

And it’s right next door to Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) headquarters. CSIS uses old-fashioned snooping and legwork to find threats inside Canada. Right now, its focus is on terrorism, but it also tries to catch foreigners who steal Canadian technological and industrial secrets. It has also been accused of spying on labour unions, Aboriginals, university-student activists, and domestic communists.

On the other hand, CSEC is supposed to look for foreign spies and terrorists, whether they’re plotting in other countries or trying to recruit Canadians to their plots. It reports to the minister of defence, Rob Nicholson, while CSIS is, at least on paper, under the control of public safety minister Steven Blaney. More than 1,700 staff, many of them stellar mathematicians, work for CSEC, which spends close to $500 million a year. And they have a lot to do: staff at CSEC go through more data in a day than the combined transactions of all Canada’s banks. Some of them aren’t happy with the public-private partnership to build the new headquarters, worrying that a rotating group of 90 contract workers who aren’t directly employed by CSEC won’t be able to keep secrets.

And at CSEC, secrets are everything. A recruitment video on the CSEC website asks prospective agents, “Can you keep a secret?” Because, the agency says, being a math genius isn’t enough. You can’t go around blabbing about your work. In fact, for years, governments denied that CSEC existed and hid its budget in the money set aside for the Canadian Forces.

The modern spy fetish worries civil libertarians. In February 2014, as part of an international campaign to curb cyber-spying, 45 civil-liberties and social-justice organizations launched a campaign to try to convince MPs not to vote in favour of spending billions on Canada’s online spying apparatus. This followed news that Edward Snowden, who fled the United States with a trove of documents that he swiped while working for the National Security Agency (NSA), gave data to the CBC that showed CSEC spied on Canadians who used wi-fi hot spots at airports in this country. That’s not what CSEC is supposed to be for. Signals intelligence — snoops and code breakers, in realspeak — are supposed to grab enemy communications and decipher them.

The trade goes back hundreds of years. Mary, Queen of Scots, was done in by signals intelligence: Tudor spies collected her secret messages and broke the code. So were German pilots who flew into clouds of Spitfires and Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain because Polish and English geniuses had unravelled the secret of the German “Enigma” code machine. And four Japanese aircraft carriers are on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean because the Americans cracked Japan’s “JN-25” code before the Battle of Midway.

CSEC has had its own successes, though of course, it rarely talks about them. But in 2010, John Adams, the Rhodes scholar who headed the agency, told an interviewer: “If you were to ask the Canadian Forces if there is anyone that has saved Canadian lives in Afghanistan, they would point to us.”

Canada routinely shares its spy data with other members of the Five Eyes intelligence group, which includes Britain, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. In that world, you have to pay to play. In the early years of this century, according to WikiLeaks documents, Paul Martin worried that the Americans would cut us out of Five Eyes because we refused to send troops to Iraq and were not spending enough on agencies like CSEC. NSA, the American spy agency, is unfathomably vast, with spy satellites, an extensive ground-based interception system, and an army of code breakers based in Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, just outside Washington.

While our cyberspies don’t have all these wonderful toys, they do have a jaw-dropping headquarters. And if the Chapters across the street has a smart manager, it will put in a few extra shelves of John le Carré.