He is an ex-wartime intelligence officer who drops Latin phrases with : the grace of falling leaves, yet he was “notoriously bad” at all the RCMP code words. He was ambassador to Germany during the Cold War and in the Middle East during the 1967 Six-Day War, but as head of the Security Service he says he didn’t “know one end of a microphone from the other.”
In fact, John Kennett Starnes, now 60, didn’t seem to know much about anything that went on inside the Security Service, which he headed between 1970 and ’73—and he didn’t much seem to care. As Starnes told the McDonald inquiry on the RCMP in Ottawa last week: “I didn’t expect someone to come to me with an operational problem, and they didn’t.”
In an account of his stewardship which, at times, seemed smaller than life, the Montreal aristocrat depicted himself as a concerned public servant picking his way through the “bureaucratic jungle.” He testified—with the frequent qualification, “to the best of my knowledge”—that he was not informed about a host of allegations of illicit or illegal RCMP activities during his tenure: mail opening; a “black bag” job at left-wing offices in Montreal in 1972; a barn-burning and theft of dynamite in Quebec; a fake terrorist communiqué which even fooled some Mounties; and strong-arm attempts to recruit informers.
Under protection that his evidence can’t be used against him in the courts, Starnes testified that there was only one operation now before the inquiry which he approved—Operation HAM, the clandestine 1973 removal of Parti á Québécois membership rolls. Secret evi5 dence released last week by the commism sion after Starnes’s day-and-a-half on g the stand indicated the code name 5
“HAMFISTED” would have been more appropriate.
The in-camera evidence taken last May from Howard Draper, the former officer in charge of SS operations, indicates that the Mounties launched HAM in hopes of proving that hostile foreign powers had contributed more than $350,000 to the PQ and that separatists had infiltrated the army and police forces, including the RCMP. Starnes has testified that HAM was started after a tip from an official in Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Privy Council Office. But the operation bombed. There was no indication of any foreign financing and the six-foot stack of computer printouts made it impossible to crosscheck PQ members against SS files on suspected government security risks. The PQ, in effect, had too many members.
Despite six years of effort involving over 40 Mounties, Draper eventually ordered the cache “sealed” because SS possession of such “dangerous” documentation, if revealed, would have been seen as interference with a legitimate political party. In 1975, Trudeau, having learned of HAM’s results, ordered the SS to stop investigating the PQ. “Well,” Starnes summed up last week, “you win some, you lose some.”
Starnes, the first civilian to lead the SS, also lost out in an attempt over four months in 1970 to persuade the Trudeau government to do something about protecting SS operatives whose anti-terrorist assignments breached the law. Starnes referred to a 1969 Royal Commission report that noted, “a security service will inevitably be involved in actions that may contravene the spirit, if not the letter of the law.” Starnes added: “Anyone who read that report would be an idiot if he had not realized there were difficult problems in this area.” But amid “a woeful lack of interest,” Starnes said, the government did nothing.
The result, Starnes indicated, was that the SS was ordered by the Trudeau
government to dig up information on Quebec separatism, but received no guidelines about targets and tactics. As an illustration, Starnes noted, “there were certain requirements which were laid upon the Security Service by the government which could only involve surreptitious entry.” The closest bureaucratic, loyalist Starnes came to a public rebuke was an implied admission that ministers of the government ducked their responsibilities. “I do not see how you can avoid having the buck stop with ministers,” Starnes told Chairman David McDonald, who asked about possible reforms.
Starnes whitened with anger when Commissioner Guy Gilbert suggested he had kept himself intentionally uninformed about operations: “There is no way that I accepted the theory or the thesis that I did not want to know.” But, as Gilbert pointed out, that was not the impression of an SS officer in Montreal who was asked in 1972 to explain why Starnes was not informed before a break-in at offices of three left-wing groups, including the Agence de Presse Libre du Québec (APLQ). “It was our understanding,” the Telex to Ottawa stated, “that Mr. Starnes did not insist absolutely on being informed before the fact.” Replied Starnes: “If my message did not get across to him, that is too bad, but I can only tell you what I believed I thought at the time.”
Starnes also rejected suggestions of political motives in a message he sent just before the 1972 federal election to the SS office in Montreal after the APLQ raid (Operation BRICOLE). Starnes’s ciphered cable noted that he was “considerably irritated” that he was not informed “in advance of such actions in this pre-election situation.” After repeated verbal duels with Starnes, Gilbert finally demanded: “Let’s grab the cat by the neck: Were you afraid that the [federal] Liberal party would collapse if a thing like that became known?” Starnes noted that his grandfather had been a long-serving Liberal MP, but shot back: “I couldn’t care less if the Liberal party failed in this particular situation. What I was talking about was where the Security Service or its activities became the subject of a political controversy and, therefore, would damage the work of the Security Service.”
Gilbert looked quizzical and Starnes inquired: “Do you not understand me?” Gilbert: “No, I don’t.” Starnes: “Well, I’m sorry.” Shortly after, prodded by Commission Chief Counsel Jake Howard, the public questioning of Starnes adjourned for at least a week of in-camera evidence on secret government documents which, finally, may shed some light on who said what to whom. Robert Lewis.
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