Monday, June 25, 2007

The spymaster in boots

Four years ago, give or take a week or two, I, along with another 19 individuals, was on the brink of “graduating” from what is called IOET — the Intelligence Officer Entry Training — at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Back then, our trainers spared no effort drilling into our young minds that what we did in the course of our work, the places we visited — hell, the very nature of our work — should be kept secret from others at all cost. Some took this directive to such a level as to hide everything from their families.

As I have written a book, provisionally titled Smokescreen, about CSIS and its deficiencies (the manuscript is currently in the hands of my literary agent), I shall refrain from going into details in this entry, lest I give away too much of what readers will find in my book if it ever hits the shelves. Suffice it to say, however, that I experienced no small amount of surprise when, in the May 25, 2007, issue of the Toronto Star, I came across an article about Jack Hooper, the former Director of Operations (DO) and for a short period Acting Director at CSIS ( Part of the surprise lay in the fact that a high-ranking official would have an article published about him in a national newspaper (remember: we had been told to hide the true nature of our work from others, including officials in other branches of the Canadian government, which we did, to the best of our abilities, through the use of obliqueness and outright lies). Se there he was, the former man at the top, revealing his identity to any Canadian — to the entire world, in fact, thanks to the Internet.

The second shocker in the article was its candidness in describing some of the places Mr. Hooper had visited in the course of his work, places like Uzbekistan, Yemen, Kandahar and Lima. The heart of the matter is that readers are fully aware Mr. Hooper visited these locales in the course of his professional activities and not, as it were, as a private citizen — in other words, he wasn’t on a personal vacation there. Again, during our training, it had been repeated ad nauseam that under no circumstances were we to divulgate trips to or contacts with operational areas, as we were to maintain the myth (a pretense that had so many holes in it that it was more a sieve than a shield) that CSIS only operated domestically. So here he is, the spymaster boasting about his exploits in some of the world’s hot spots. This makes me wonder if this article was ever cleared by CSIS — as all CSIS employees, current or retired — are supposed to do, or if perhaps some of its members are just above the law. Maybe the explanation is simpler. Maybe, as is often the case, CSIS is being inconsistent, if not altogether incompetent.

For many months after I resigned from CSIS in the fall of 2005, I would avoid revealing where I had worked and be cautious in how I characterized my former employer when applying for a job. Part of me still wanted to play spy or simply wanted to respect the agreement that I had made with CSIS not to reveal where I had worked, what I had done. Some still do, choosing to hide behind a screen when testifying at the Air India inquiry, as did my former Director-General. But for the DO to open up the way he did, in an article where he is seen standing, hands in pockets, on a quay in British Columbia — that does it for me. No more hiding. If a 22-year career intelligence officer can unfold the way he did, there is no reason why someone who only practiced the same job for 29 months could not. (I had always wondered, anyway, why former CIA officials, from Robert Baer all the way to former DCI George Tenet, could publish their memoirs with such freedom while their Canadian counterparts were prevented from doing so. Case in point, on two occasions during my stint at CSIS, officials there warned me against ever writing about my experiences at CSIS).

Aside from epitomizing the greater liberties former CSIS officials now seem to enjoy in terms of talking about their former employer, what does the article in the Toronto Star have to offer? Sadly, precious little, aside from exposing a man who unfortunately stands as the perfect mascot for the macho attitude that guides CSIS and how it carries itself in the intelligence community. Here, for example, Hooper talks about CSIS and its dealings with governments that are known to disregard human rights:

“Here’s the deal. Everybody would like to believe that we have an array of choices that are good choices and bad choices. But we’re going to a dance where every girl is ugly, okay … They’re all ugly. And all we can do is get the least ugly girl to dance with. But you know, when you bring her home your dad is going to tell you, ‘That is one ugly woman.’ And you're going to say, ‘Yeah dad, but she was the best looking of that lot.’ Does that make you smart? Not in the eyes of your father.”

The above quote was in reference to the Syrian government and how CSIS became involved in the Maher Arar case, the Syrian-born Canadian who, thanks to information given the US by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), was deported to Syria, where he is believed to have been tortured. Besides being a repugnantly misogynistic and elitist analogy, Hooper’s “ugly girl” is indicative of the mindset that prevails at CSIS, one in which the consequences of one’s actions are discarded. The proverbial man in the bar always has a choice, and if all the girls are too “ugly,” he can just leave. He doesn’t have to dance — especially when he knows that choosing to dance will harm innocent people.

Speaking about Justice O’Connor, who presided the Arar Commission, Hooper then demonstrates another undercurrent at CSIS, that of the agency that knows better than everybody else:

“Nobody knows what the right thing is to do [,] so it’s left to us to make the decision about who the least ugly girl is.”

Therein lies the danger for all Canadians, when CSIS is left to decide what is best for Canada, without the accountability and checks that can ensure the survival of a democracy. Unfortunately, these two lines perfectly describe the aversion and contempt that CSIS has shown the court system as well as the Security Intelligence Review Committee and the Inspector General, the two supposed independent yet outright fangless accountability bodies charged with monitoring how CSIS conducts its operations.

But accountability isn't the object of the Star interview. It is about the man. And above all, the one impression it leaves the reader with is that of an unpolished bully, which comments such as “I would never let my guys drink Merlot [wine]. It’s not allowed. It’s a sissy wine … It’s light and girls drink it. And it sounds funny when you say it. Mer-lot. Men should never say that,” cannot but — to pun — leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Why would any self-respecting career official say such things in a “first-time” interview with a national publication? How unrefined a mind must one have to use such derogatory terms to make a point (about what, one wonders)? Beyond that, if CSIS can allow such a person to climb to the top, what does this entail for the minority groups that will be targeted by the organization in Canada? If Hooper can show such outright disrespect for women and homosexuals, how does he treat Muslims, Sikhs, Aborigines, Africans, to name a few? (See “They’re Like Us, But They’re Not,” June 2, 2006, on this blog for more on Hooper and racism).

In my 29 months at CSIS I did not have much interactions with Hooper — “the CSIS chief who has a lot to learn about the Middle East but talks far too much,” as veteran reporter Robert Fisk wrote on June 10, 2006. When I did, however, I was sitting at a long oblong table on the fifth floor of the CSIS National Headquarters building in Ottawa. Next to me was my supervisor, or "head," and at table with us were lawyers and a handful of other officials. At the opposite end, oozing cowboy-like confidence, was Jack Hooper. Every time we went in that room, it was to renew a warrant or request to add targets to our investigation. We would make a short presentation, followed by a mockery of a question-and-answer session. Usually, Hooper would have the final, or next-to-final, word — a blessing of sorts — and we would leave, added powers granted.

The uncomfortable question is, given the man that has been exposed in the article — and by rebound the organization that permitted him to reach the pinnacle of power — how confident can we be that the individuals we asked to be allowed to target in that stuffy room should be targeted?

Perhaps, like ugly girls and Merlot wine, targets can just as easily be spit out.

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