Watergate’s lessons do not travel well

Tom Wicker September 25 1978

Watergate’s lessons do not travel well

Tom Wicker September 25 1978

Watergate’s lessons do not travel well


Tom Wicker

For the past year, Canadians have been exposed to a daily fusillade of disclosures involving their most cherished national institution, the RCMP. The misdeeds, many of them illegal, have cast the Mounties in a new, unnerving context, watchmen who need watching. Yet the majority of Canadians remain solidly loyal to the RCMP. For the view of an unbiased outsider, Maclean's asked the distinguished U.S. journalist Tom Wicker to spend some time in Canada talking with the country’s political leadership, its police officials, and ordinary Canadians. Wicker, author of A Time to Die and On Press, is a columnist with The New York Times. His report:

n Jan. 9, 1973, “blackbaggers” of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Security Service surreptitiously entered the offices of the separatist Parti Québécois and copied the party’s membership lists. More than five years later, one of the planners of the PQ break-in recalled wondering at the time if it might be illegal.

But Robert Potvin, then a senior noncommissioned RCMP officer, quickly put aside his doubts because he thought he could rely on “the experience and discretion” of his superiors. He believed authority for such a politically delicate job must have come from very senior levels in the service and that the minister of justice or his aides were aware of it. Not long before Potvin’s testimony to a royal commission, RCMP Chief Superintendent Donald Cobb related how, in 1971, he had asked John Starnes, the director-general of the Security Service, for permission to deal with separatist problems in any way he chose, without first seeking SS clearance from Ottawa headquarters. The good names of the Service and the RCMP would thus be protected. They would be given, in an unfortunate American term for such protection, “deniability.”

To an outsider’s eye, the testimony of these RCMP veterans sheds at least a little light on the biggest puzzle of the Canadian controversy over the long list of abuses now alleged to the Security Service of the RCMP. That puzzle is the tolerance—one might say the near nonchalance—of the Trudeau government in dealing with such serious charges. It was, after all, a break-in at a rival political party’s headquarters that led finally to the resignation of Richard Nixon as president of the United States in 1974. So it is not only remarkable that with the Watergate affair at its height in 1973, the Quebec break-in went forward anyway; it seems truly extraordinary that the Trudeau government, recalling Mr. Nixon’s fate, did not leap zealously to discipline the breakin’s perpetrators.

Instead, while denying any knowledge of SS abuses the government has scarcely seemed exercised about them, suggesting that the fault lay not so much with the lawbreakers as with a law they were obliged to break. At a news conference on Dec. 9, 1977, Prime Minister Trudeau said that “as a principle ... the particular minister of the day should not have a right to know what the police are doing constantly in their investigative practices.”

ith no intent to make invidious comparisons, it’s pertinent to say that in post-Watergate days no American president or attorney-general could make such a statement about the FBI without evoking a storm of protest. But, said Trudeau, “if the government, the minister, or myself had begun asking the RCMP in any detail about their operations ... we would certainly have been accused by the Opposition ... of having undue political influence and interference in the RCMP.” The superficial plausibility of Trudeau’s position may have obscured for some Canadians the fact that police power is everywhere one of

the first responsibilities of government—particularly so in a parliamentary system such as Canada’s where “ministerial responsibility” is theoretically total. If not even the solicitor-general should have a right to know “what the police are doing constantly,” then who should have such a right? Who should guard the guards? What responsibility does the government take?

These obvious questions suggest that Trudeau’s “principle” may be more nearly a convenience; and the testimony of Potvin and Cobb, together with other circumstances of Canadian security affairs, suggest a deeper reason why the prime minister is not wildly excited over the alleged abuses.

That reason may well be that the government knew far more than it now wants to admit about what the SS was doing, particularly in regard to Quebec separatists—at the least that it had given the SS authority to proceed more or less as the security men saw fit, and without much concern for the policeman’s traditional tendency to confuse legitimate political dissent with subversion.

It seems improbable, for example, that John Starnes, a former diplomat who in 1973 was a senior civil servant and not a member of the government, took it upon himself to give Donald Cobb the freewheeling authority Cobb requested; and if, as Cobb thought, he “got it” from Starnes, the greater likelihood is that Starnes was empowered higher up the chain of command, or passed word of his action up that chain and was not overruled.

Common sense suggests also that Potvin might have been right in believing that his superiors must have informed the higher-ups of a plan to break into a political party office in 1973, or even have received the plan from them. Any security officer who

took such a politically dangerous decision on his own would be courting instant dismissal or worse if it came to light—and any government that did not react that strongly in the aftermath of Watergate seems likely to have had too much knowledge itself to have been able to act.

It’s true, of course, that the Trudeau government appointed the royal commission of inquiry. But it is also apparently delaying any prosecution or disciplinary actions until the commission reports around 1980—and there’s no assurance what that report will say, or that any action will be taken then. Vague language may be one of the problems; a cabinet instruction of March 1, 1975, on “The Role, Tasks and Methods of the RCMP Security Service,” authorized the SS to “maintain internal security by discerning, monitoring, investigating, deterring, preventing and countering individuals and groups in Canada” engaged in or planning espionage, sabotage, terrorism, hostile acts for a foreign power, or the overthrow of the government—including “the creation or exploitation of civil disorder” for any of those purposes. Any resourceful security official—J. Edgar Hoover, for a south-of-the-border example—could

drive his armored limousine through the loopholes in such an instruction as that.

11 of this, of course, has to be seen in the context of Canadian attitudes toward civil liberties and the RCMP—a context well understood by the Trudeau government.

Canada may not ^ be exactly what one Canadian termed it in an interview with me—a “pleasantly authoritarian country” founded on the English side by ref-

ugees from the American Revolution— but Canadian civil liberties traditions are much different from those of the United States. There is, for example, no real bill of rights with constitutional force. And under the Official Secrets Act—a breed of law unknown in the U.S.—in the past year a Canadian citizen has been tried and convicted entirely in secret, while a Canadian journalist, Peter Worthington, and his newspaper, The Toronto Sun, are being brought to trial for publishing supposedly secret information (most of which already had been broadcast, without government response, on a television network). Neither case would have been possible in the United States.

Wiretaps may be authorized in Canada only by judges in criminal cases— except by the solicitor-general, a political official acting without judicial review, in national security cases. At present in the U.S., only foreign intelligence taps may be undertaken without a court order; and a bill supported by the Carter administration is expected to pass Congress this fall, requiring judicial warrants even for those.

Statistics compiled by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association show that in 1971, the last year the courts allowed the U.S. government to order taps without judicial warrants for both foreign and domestic intelligence purposes, 117 such taps were placed. By contrast, in Canada in 1976, 517 national security intercepts were authorized by the solicitor-general without court review and its concomitant— the requirement that apI plicants for taps demonr strate probable cause to be^ lieve that a crime is being or about to be committed. Canadian national security taps, moreover, had an average lifetime of 240 days; those authorized by judges in criminal cases were for 30 days.

Since Canada’s is not a government of divided powers there are no parliamentary “oversight” committees to monitor the SS, in the way that such committees of Congress are now beginning to oversee the FBI and the CIA. The opposition parties, while gingerly raising questions about SS activities, are wary of the RCMP’s high standing and long tradition of public service, making it far more “untouchable” than the FBI ever was in the U.S., even at the height of Hoover’s murky reign. And the Canadian public, as an opposition MP put it to me, seems to want the RCMP’s “image restored” rather than its malefactors prosecuted.

The Trudeau government’s decision to channel the entire investigation into a royal commission, no matter how reputable, comports with that public attitude. Such information as is already available could have been transmitted to the provincial attorneys-general concerned, for prosecution—if war-

ranted—through the ordinary criminal justice channels. But the royal commission tends to “muzzle” any prospect of prosecution, at least until it completes its laborious task. Meanwhile, the government can refer all inquiries—particularly from the political opposition —to the royal commission.

This doesn’t mean that no good will come from the commission. On the contrary, and aside from the question of whether anyone will be prosecuted or punished for past offences, as is happening to former FBI officials in the U.S., Chairman David McDonald, the commissioners and their staff are looking at a variety of important questions—not just at the prime minister’s suggestion that maybe the police need more power to preserve internal security.

To arrive at acceptable solutions with authority would be a notable contribution. Every democracy must wrestle with them, as the United States also has been doing; none has as yet found universally satisfactory answers. For Canada to reach Canadian conclusions by a Canadian procedure might yet prove a worthwhile consequence of what otherwise seems an unappetizing affair of police excesses, political expedience or worse, and public confusion of