Nest of Spies, Fabrice de Pierrebourg & Michel Juneau-Katsuya

Harper Collins, 2009, 372 pages, C32.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-55468-449-6
(Read in the original French as Ces Espions venus d’ailleurs, Stanké, 2009, 358 pages, C$29.95 tp, ISBN 978-2-7604-1049-6)

One doesn’t think of Canada as a hotbed of espionage, but covert information-gathering is omnipresent, and it’s not because Canada isn’t a world stage player that it’s magically immune to spying drama.  Obviously, we’re close to the USA in more than the obvious ways.  But Canada’s companies are also at the forefront of technological innovation and, as such, are vulnerable to corporate espionage, whether my other companies or foreign governments.  In the twenty years since the fall of the USSR, the spy business has grown even more complicated, and showing the current state of the art is part of what Fabrice de Pierrebourg (journalist) and Michel Juneau-Katsuya (ex-CSIS operative, now private security consultant) are trying to do with Nest of Spies.

Originally written and published in French as Ces Espions venus d’ailleurs, but now widely available in English as Nest of Spies, the book begins at the end of the Cold War, partly to show Canada’s past success stories (including a spectacular coup following a fire at the USSR’s Montréal consulate), partly to compare then and now.  Whereas Cold-War-era RCMP merely had to deal with one big opponent, today’s CSIS has to track down not only terrorists, but spies from a lengthy list of “friendly” nations and foreign companies.  Foreign operatives on Canadian soil not only snoop around, some of them also seek to intimidate and marginalize members of Canada’s ethnic groups.  And that’s not even discussing the new electronic espionage threats, the tensions between the Canadian security apparatus and its political masters, or the way very limited resources have to be allocated against a variety of threats.

It’s a big, big subject, and the authors can be forgiven if the book is more scattered than ideal.  The table of content jumps from one theme to another, sometimes dwelling at length on a single topic (such as Chapter 002, which is all about the mysterious Paul William Hampel), while others whizz by a variety of topics.  The scatter-shot nature of the book is also obvious from the way the book seems to switch audiences.  Sometimes seemingly targeted at covert operation buffs, sometimes at executives wishing to beef up corporate security, Nest of Spies runs with its “spying in Canada” theme without taking much time to organize and structure.

As with most books dealing with intelligence-gathering, its revelations come from a mixture of open source information and confidential interviews.  Although the authors assure us that they’ve made sure that the content of the book is entirely truthful, it’s often hard to separate fact from rumour or well-informed speculation.  This becomes crucial when the book often shifts gears from reporting to advocacy.  The evidence in the book suggests that Canada’s secret services have been historically underfunded, badly managed and treated casually by the country’s political masters.  While the recommendations of the authors for a better-funded, better-managed, more respected CSIS make sense, they do so based on an accumulation of statements that can’t be validated easily.  (To estimate the impact of economic espionage, the authors have to resort to a 15-year-old study, and match it with other estimates in comparable countries.)

But for the vast majority of readers that are completely powerless in setting priorities for the Canadian security establishment, Nest of Spies remains a fascinating update on the current state of intelligence activities in Canada.  While economic spying is old news, the look at Chinese intelligence operations is revealing, and the long list of incidents in which foreign operatives are said to harass their own (ex-)citizen on Canadian soil is troubling.  The authors’ sources have been generous in providing them with great stories of covert operations –including a spectacularly inept attempt to recruit a high-ranking Soviet diplomat.  In providing an overview of what’s happening now in Canada in terms of foreign intelligence operations, Nest of Spies is as good as unclassified sources ever get.

(Those with access to both the English and French version of the book will note that the English version is better-designed and has a slightly more serious prose style.  On the other hand, the French version has a sarcastic tone that isn’t always translated faithfully in the English version, and it inserts its photographic documents in the main body of the text rather than sandwiched in glossy plates in the middle of the English book.  The translation to English is competent, so much so that many bilingual readers fluent in the English intelligence lingo will find the translation easier to read.)

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