Spyworld, Mike Frost and Michel Gratton

Seal/Bantam, 1995, 275 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7704-2707-3

If you’re like me, you tend to assume that the vast majority of modern spying is handled by the Americans. Dozens, hundreds of spy movies and semi-fiction technothrillers, most of them produced in the United States, have conditioned us to accept the FBI, CIA and NSA as undisputed masters of electronic spying. Compared to them, the very though of, say, Canadians trying out their luck at espionage is somehow completely ridiculous.

And yet, even masters need their apprentices. Mike Frost was one of them, an employee of Canada’s NSA-equivalent, the Communication Security Establishment (CSE). From the early seventies to 1990, Frost was at the forefront of Canada’s electronic spying initiative. As he makes it clear, it was all sponsored, equipped and suggested by the Americans… though the apprentice would eventually surprise the master.

Electronic spying isn’t exciting in a cinematographic fashion. Instead of seducing enemy agents, photographing secret documents and shooting oneself out of trouble, it basically means intercepting, decoding and analyzing radio communications. All of which can be safely conducted from a more-or-less safe location, like an embassy.

But even if physical danger isn’t a factor, the international spying game has its own sets of rules, where embarrassment can be the ultimate failure. It’s simply not done to pack up electronic equipment and set it up in the embassy. Things have to be done stealthily as so not to awaken doubts, even among the embassy personnel itself.

Frost, along with collaborator Michel Gratton, clearly traces the evolution of Canadian electronic spying efforts, from amateurishness in Moscow (lack of preparation leading to funny anecdotes concerning the shipping of the electronic equipment, including sending a high-powered drill to pierce a safe, cutting up a five-foot dish antennae in shippable pieces and taking chances with an underpowered elevator.) to stealing profitable trade secrets from the Chinese.

This is heavy-duty modern spying, and each step of the way is meticulously detailed. Embassy selection, equipment installation, personnel training and data transmission are all crucial steps, described in here. And it all feels real, without too much sensationalism or outlandish claims.

Well, almost without too many outlandish claims. Like most general-interest books about the spying business, Spyworld raises issues of domestic privacy and government powers in communication interception. Should the CSE have the power to intercept domestic communications? Should it be overseen by a committee of elected officials? Unfortunately, these questions are nothing new; the book is more effective in demonstrating the powers of contemporary spying capacities than in explicitly decrying its possible excesses.

In any case, the end result is a non-fiction account that’s interesting, not too technically obscure, with some great anecdotes and which lifts a small corner of the veil over some very real spying practices. Not a bad read, if only for a few moments of national pride.

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