Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sounding the alarm

I began the draft of my book on Canadian security intelligence two days after I resigned from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) in September 2005. Following graduation from the War Studies Master’s Degree program at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) on Nov. 4 that year, I relocated to Taiwan, where I began working as a copy editor. For months I sporadically worked on my manuscript, but there was still too much anger in me — anger at what I had experienced at CSIS — to be able to write with enough emotional distance to make my work more useful than mere tirade. So months passed and I focused instead on events in Taiwan.

But Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in July-August 2006 reawakened in me a sense of urgency and the need to get the message out, to show how destructive the misguided, bigoted intelligence and military apparatuses that claim to protect democracy can be (buildings need not be pulverized for lives to be damaged by intelligence services, as I saw first-hand at CSIS). Following that illegal war, I re-embarked on my writing and, months later, came up with the semblance of a finished manuscript, which I then submitted to a literary agent in Toronto, Canada. The manuscript was read and the agent sent me a list of items that needed to be changed. I was told my work was to autobiographical, which (he was right) might not have appealed to general readers. So I rewrote the entire thing, cutting entire sections that were of little interest to people who did not know me.

Three versions and 18 months later, my book Smokescreen: Canadian Security Intelligence after September 11, 2001, is finally out. It is much slicker and I believe has enough emotional distance — yet still enough — to make it engaging and useful for general readers as well as academics and intelligence officers.

I would be lying if I said that writing this book was a walk in the park. It wasn't. Aside from the hundreds (dare I count?) of hours writing the manuscript, doing research, seeking permissions from publishers whose work I quote, finding my own publisher, making the proofs, designing the cover (yes, I did that, too) and everything else, the endeavor reopened wounds I had consciously decided I would leave behind when I resigned from CSIS. For a while, the sleeplessness that had haunted my last year at the Service threatened to revisit me, and I could once again feel the very real, suffocating ball of pain creeping inside me. But in the end, this work, however painful it was, served as an exorcism. Even the more personal parts that ultimately did not make it into the final product were cathartic and allowed me to deal with the demons and, once I was done with them (or they with me), to banish them.

My work has taken so many shapes and forms that after a while I lost sight of whether it would appeal to general readers. I believe it does. Sadly, very few people in Canada have been asking the questions that I raise — and try to answer — in Smokescreen. Even fewer are those who have been part of the intelligence community, people who have a better sense of what’s going on and everything that is wrong with that state-within-the-state, largely because, like me, they were told never to write about the things they have seen or done. It was precisely because I had been part of that system that I so urgently needed to get the message out — not to reveal secrets (which I don't) — but rather to show how utterly corrupted and corrupting that system is.

Democratic systems in the West are indeed threatened, but the threat comes not from al-Qaeda, or Hezbollah, or Hamas or Iran, but from within, from the unaccountable, authoritarian (and oftentimes incompetent) sub-state actors like CSIS, the CIA, MI5, ISIS (Mossad) and all the others that purportedly protect us. This is what my book is about, how the system transforms the individuals who are part of it and crushes their sense of morality to defend a cause that has little to do with reality or protecting civilians (in my case Canadians).

So it’s out, not in my hands anymore. I don't know whether I should be excited or terrified. I think I'm both. Let’s see what happens…

NOTICE: Please note that Smokescreen is now available for order at, and, as well as in e-book format at It will go on sale through other distribution channels (Chapters, Indigo and Coles bookstores) in a few weeks.


Anonymous said...

It's a shame your editor made you cut out the personal stuff. I guess since I've become accustomed to reading blogs, I rather enjoy the personal parts that make writing more human.

Your book looks very interesting as I've always been interested in intelligence agencies and all that goes along with them. I'll be sure to check it out when it hits Amazon and I can pick it up in Japan.

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

Dear Sakadosanpo/Bryan:

Many thanks for the kind words. I was a little sad, indeed, to let go of all those sections in my book. A bit like killing your own babies, I am told. But thus the laws of the market.

My book is now available on Not sure about, however. e-book version is also available at

Thanks for you interest!