In the grey, tangled ethics of espionage and paid informants, there has always been only a thin and tenuous line between acting a part and living it. In one famous example in Russia in 1908, Yakov Sverdlov, one of five members of the Bolshevik Organization in St. Petersburg, worried that his group had been infiltrated by a government informant. More than a decade later, after the Bolsheviks had overthrown the Czarist government and seized its files, Sverdlov learned he was both right and wrong: all of the other four members of the group had been Czarist informers.
Perhaps that precedent will provide solace to the anonymous, unknown number of employees of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which last week stumbled through one of the stormiest weeks in its already checkered 11-year history. But for now, CSIS needs all the help it can get in defending the actions of Grant Bristow, a mysterious Torontonian allegedly paid by CSIS to spy on the country’s largest neo-Nazi group, the Toronto-based Heritage Front—and who, according to various recent media reports, proceeded to try to gather intelligence on everything from the Reform Party of Canada to at least one of the country’s national Jewish organizations. In defending itself, CSIS is not likely to get much help from embarrassed members of the Liberal government, who last week promised to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the matter. It is even less likely to win sympathy from opposition MPs, after revelations that Bristow extended his activities by working briefly on Reform party Leader Preston Manning’s security team last year. That alleged effort to spy on what is now one of the country’s three biggest political parties, said Manning, “cannot be tolerated.” And CSIS should probably not rely heavily on goodwill from the country’s major media outlets, after allegations that Bristow passed on to the spy agency information about CBC investigations into the Heritage Front—not to mention CSIS’s own threats to have The Toronto Sun and The Toronto Star both charged under the Official Secrets Act after the newspapers
published parts of confidential documents.
Still, CSIS may not need media friends if it can benefit, as it did last week, from the ineptitude of those who are exposing it to scrutiny. Although it is long-standing government practice to print coded numbers on confidential documents in order to identify their users, the Star proudly published a front page photograph of their leaked copy of the document,
An alleged neo-Nazi informant sparks a parliamentary inquiry
with the number clearly displayed. As a result, the RCMP arrested and questioned Brian Mclnnis, a former aide to Doug Lewis, solicitor general in the Progressive Conservative government.
As for the man who triggered so much mischief, Bristow was in hiding last week, and details of his background are few and conflicting. CSIS, true to character, was not saying anything about almost any aspect of the case. But revelations from people who worked with and against Bristow over the past five years make it clear that he demonstrated little difficulty in blending in with neo-Nazis. An unlicensed private investigator with a passion for electronic gadgets, he was one of three principal organizers in 1989 of the Heritage Front. Other members of the group maintain that Bristow paid many of the start-up expenses for the group, including hotel and telephone bills and car rental costs. They also say that he organized harassment campaigns against antiracist ac-
tivists that were so severe that some of those targeted required police protection.
One irony of the controversy is that, for once, CSIS appears to have targeted a group— the Heritage Front—which most Canadians could agree warrants surveillance. That was not always the case in the past: the security organization and its predecessor, the RCMP security service, were criticized for their efforts against Quebec separatists in the 1970s and, more recently, some ethnic groups. But Bristow’s alleged actions have alienated most potential supporters. B’nai Brith Canada executive vicepresident Frank Diamant, for example, said he was “outraged” by allegations that Bristow gave information on Canadian Jewish groups to a violent American neo-Nazi group.
As well, Bristow’s actions could hurt, rather than help, attempts to convict some of the people he spied on. Harry Doan, the lawyer for Heritage Front leader Wolfgang Droege, told Maclean’s last week that he will likely ask for dismissal of a series of criminal charges against Droege because Bristow was present when legal defence strategy was privately discussed.
All of that inevitably evokes memories of the last time that Canada’s spies received unwelcome attention. In 1974, Robert Samson, a renegade RCMP officer, went on trial in Montreal on a series of charges related to an aborted bombing attempt, on which he was later convicted and sentenced to seven years. Midway through his courtroom testimony, Samson, exasperated by aggressive questioning from the prosecution, snapped that he had done “much worse” in the past on behalf of the RCMP. His subsequent revelations led to provincial and federal commissions that uncovered further evidence of RCMP wrongdoing—and ultimately to the decision to create CSIS as an independent intelligence-gathering body separate from the RCMP. Now, Canada’s spy masters can expect to be asked whether they have learned from history, or allowed it to be repeated.
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