Kurt F. Jensen. Cautious Beginnings: Canadian Foreign Intelligence, 1939-51. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009. 230 pp. $37.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7748-1483-6.
Reviewed by Kevin Spooner (Wilfrid Laurier University)
Published on H-Canada (June, 2011)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth
Toward an Understanding of the Genesis of Canadian Foreign Intelligence
There are few subjects more challenging for foreign policy historians to research and write about than espionage. Spying by its very nature is discreet, taking place in the shadows--its very existence obfuscated by falsehoods to protect its patrons from potential embarrassment. Documentation can be scarce, vague, and misleading, and very difficult for the scholar to access, especially in the Canadian context where government records can be closed to researchers virtually forever or extensively excised when they are released. Such difficulties can and have led others writing in this area to posit unsubstantiated interpretations and narratives that ultimately collapse when new information comes to light. Kurt F. Jensen acknowledges that Cautious Beginnings may be drier than other historical accounts of foreign intelligence, but much to his credit he has carefully interpreted the considerable primary material he has discovered, ensuring that this book will stand the test of time as the foundational study used in future histories of Canadian intelligence gathering.
Covering the period 1939 to 1951, Cautious Beginnings examines the earliest years in the formation of Canada’s foreign intelligence gathering capabilities, the country’s contributions in this field during the Second World War, and discussions leading to the development of postwar continuing capabilities. At the outset, Jensen clarifies the scope of his work by helpfully explaining the various definitions and forms of intelligence. Security intelligence, gathered and used largely to protect a nation from perceived internal and external threats, is what the public mostly thinks of as intelligence but is not substantially addressed by Cautious Beginnings. Foreign intelligence provides material to better appreciate the intentions and capabilities of other states, while military intelligence is more tactical in scope. Still, there can be significant overlap between foreign and military intelligence, and together they constitute the primary focus of Jensen’s work. An important distinction is also made between human intelligence (HUMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT). Canada does not have an organization devoted to clandestine HUMINT but has engaged in other forms of HUMINT and has developed important and useful resources in SIGINT. Jensen writes about both.
The first three chapters of Cautious Beginnings not only depict Canada’s early efforts at intelligence gathering but also introduce and establish key themes pursued in later chapters. For instance, from the earliest days, there was alternating interdepartmental confusion and cooperation between the Department of National Defence (DND) and the Department of External Affairs (DEA), the two ministries most responsible for Canada’s intelligence gathering capabilities. It is also apparent, from very early on, that Canada’s intelligence activities would originate and evolve in consultation and cooperation with its two most important allies: the United Kingdom and the United States. At the outbreak of war in 1939, independent Canadian foreign intelligence capabilities were virtually nonexistent and for the next eighteen months addressing this shortcoming was not a government priority. The situation was only slightly better with respect to military intelligence. In the interwar period, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) did develop SIGINT abilities for direction finding triangulation in cooperation with, and in service to, the British Admiralty. Thus, the RCN was ahead of the other services in regard to military intelligence but had far more interest in its relationship with the Royal Navy than in cooperation with other Canadian armed services. The DEA’s association with SIGINT was firmly in place by June 1941, with the establishment of the ambiguously named “Examination Unit.” This proved an important development in Canadian cryptoanalytical capabilities. While the military services continued to collect raw data, the Examination Unit (administratively attached to the National Research Council) began to have success in deciphering Vichy diplomatic and German agent traffic, and within the DEA a special section devoted to intelligence interpreted material. Thus significant steps were taken to develop skills beyond basic interception, though very much with borrowed expertise from America and Britain. The allies took steps to coordinate intelligence activity, as at the British-Canadian-American Radio Intelligence Discussions of 1942, to lessen duplication and increase the effectiveness of their efforts; Jensen makes it abundantly clear that Canada was the junior, though useful, partner in such arrangements.
Chapters 4 through 6 assess the significance of Canada’s intelligence operations during World War II. The costs and risks associated with covert human intelligence operations precluded Canada from engaging in such activity prior to and throughout the war, yet Canada is seen to have made a “small but important” contribution through overt human intelligence gathering. By spring 1938, an interdepartmental committee on censorship had been created, and preparations were made in advance of the implementation of censorship in fall 1939. The general staff at DND introduced regulations to censor outgoing mail for sensitive information and to review, in particular, the correspondence of prisoners of war (POWs) in Canada; incoming mail from enemy occupied territories was also reviewed to gather individual pieces of information that collectively shed light on such topics as living conditions in enemy territory. Jensen provides a telling example of an intelligence report on conditions in Germany produced in early 1945, and based on more than fifty thousand letters, that comprehensively addressed “air raids, amusements, commodities, crime and punishment, crops, education, food, health, housing, justice, labour, livestock, mail, and travel” (p. 77). Efforts were also made to gather information from repatriated Canadians who had lived under enemy control. Jensen observes that the intelligence reports produced on the basis of these debriefings and censorship activities were of sufficient quality to impress the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The author also examines a particularly interesting intelligence operation carried out from 1942 to 1943 in the United States that demonstrated the degree and complexity of allied cooperation in intelligence gathering. Entitled “Mousetrap,” the operation involved Canadian personnel secretly (though with the knowledge of the U.S. government) intercepting foreign diplomatic and economic communications for analysis by the British. By the operation’s end, information gathered was being used exclusively by Canada’s Examination Unit. Jensen argues that the intercepts collected were helpful but not critical to Canada, though the entire episode did demonstrate Canada’s status as a minor partner in Allied intelligence gathering. Canada sometimes had little control over the manner of its contributions to the tripartite partnership, but still benefited in the end from access to raw material and finished intelligence it might not otherwise have had.
The final third of Jensen’s book addresses the postwar period, a time of considerable debate over whether Canadian intelligence gathering initiatives of the war would continue, what form they would take, and how they would best be administered. Today, we take intelligence gathering, and the significance of the information it yields for policy formulation, for granted. Yet, as the end of the war first came into sight, it was not at all certain that Canada would continue to support its early endeavors in this field. Hume Wrong, one of the most important and well-respected Canadian diplomats of the day, questioned the very value of SIGINT and the Examination Unit to the DEA. Though the DEA was concerned with the cost side of a cost-benefit analysis of postwar intelligence gathering and interpretation, officials at DND were keen to stress the benefits. Jensen does a fine job at recounting the interplay of bureaucratic decision making. What emerges in Jensen’s account is a tussle between the DND and DEA, with officials at the latter ministry--most particularly George Glazebrook, who would go on to play a key role in the administration of Canadian intelligence--eventually deciding in fall 1945 that if peacetime intelligence was unavoidable that it should be a combined civilian/military effort with overall policy directed by the DEA.
Allied relations are another important theme in this final section of the book. The ever-present North Atlantic triangle continued to shape perceptions of Canada’s role in the business of intelligence. Jensen argues that while the United States was willing to see Canada as a “possible junior partner,” Britain “continued to perceive a dominion that should be supportive of imperial needs” (p. 134). In spite of its initial reluctance toward a continuation of postwar intelligence gathering, Canada’s approach in the late 1940s and early 1950s ultimately demonstrated the nation’s preference to engage in this activity very much as a junior partner and not simply a subservient dominion. As allied attention turned to assessments of the Soviet Union and its capabilities, Canada also demonstrated a willingness to challenge more pessimistic American interpretations of the threat to North America posed by the Soviets. Canada’s intelligence role was a near perfect example of the functional principle in action. Canada had a junior role to play and it accepted the more limited responsibilities that came with that role in order to benefit from access to wider intelligence findings from its allies and to have some say, even if only in an equally limited way, in the direction of these combined efforts.
With Cautious Beginnings, Jensen has given us a well-researched and detailed account of the early foundations of Canada’s entry into the world of foreign intelligence. For many, especially those expecting a collection of sordid tales of dramatic espionage by deadly foreign agents, the book will seem far too detailed and dry. It certainly is a tremendous challenge for the reader to follow the various bureaucratic permutations (and their interminable acronyms) that shaped and implemented Canadian and Allied intelligence gathering. That said, Jensen’s work will prove to be a significant historiographical foundation on which future scholars will undoubtedly build their own studies of intelligence in the later Cold War and post-9/11 periods.
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Kevin Spooner. Review of Jensen, Kurt F., Cautious Beginnings: Canadian Foreign Intelligence, 1939-51.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
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