Infiltrating a Spy Conference

Here I am, watched by dozens of spies representing almost the entire alphabet -- CSIS, CSE, CIA, NSA, MI5. Especially MIB, Men In Black. Sombre, dark tones are obviously still in style for the discerning intelligence professional.

We're all at the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies. This is where many of the leading sages, celebrities and underbosses of the Anglo-Saxon spy world gather to exchange secret handshakes and plots for world domination.

I arrive at Ottawa's historic Chateau Laurier, next to Parliament Hill, for the three-day affair, minus cloak and dagger. Why wear a cloak when you've got a name tag?

Inside are 200-odd spies, 90 per cent of them men, 97 per cent white. The only black people are out in the hall serving drinks. Not a single francophone voice can be heard.

Lyndon Johnson once remarked, "The CIA is made up of boys whose families sent them to Princeton but wouldn't let them into the family brokerage business." Thirty-five years later, change seems to have passed this little fraternity by.

Even the end of the Cold War left it fundamentally unchanged. Today, intelligence agencies are resurgent and badder than ever. For that, spies thank the Internet and other fashionable new security "threats": native people, anti-globalization activists, foreign companies, organized crime, even polluters.

"The future is far from bleak for SIGINT collectors around the world. Most feel it is a time of plenty," enthuses Matthew Aid, a former officer at the U.S. National Security Agency, which spies on the Internet, phone calls and faxes (SIGINT in spy speak, or Signals Intelligence). "There will be more surreptitious entries, more theft of foreign encryption tools and more clandestine eavesdropping," he assures the audience.

Alistair Hensler, former director-general of operations at CSIS, says the covert agent's human touch is needed more than ever to combat the "cyber-threat" and hordes of new terrorist groups. "HUMINT (Human Intelligence, or covert agents) in the ethnic community could help," he tells the conference.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. In the wake of the Cold War it was expected that that there would be reductions in intelligence spending.

There was even discussion in the U.S. of shutting down the Central Intelligence Agency. But today, the U.S. spends an estimated $30 billion on spying, 50 per cent more after inflation than in 1980.

Why did intelligence reform lose steam? Some say change is a double-edged sword. When the U.S. Congress tried to restrict CIA operations in the 70s, agency operatives simply worked harder to cover their tracks, according to Louis Wolf of CovertAction Quarterly, a Washington, D.C.-based intelligence watchdog.

Wolf, whom I contacted for some insights after the conference, says the CIA did this by contracting out some of its most sensitive operations to trusted private firms not subject to congressional oversight. If Congress didn't approve funds for an operation, the CIA developed other sources of money, like arms deals or drug trafficking, he said.

But not everyone has given up. One of the lonely voices still fighting for intelligence reform is Mel Goodman, former CIA senior analyst of Soviet affairs and now a professor at the Pentagon's National War College. "People just don't want to go near the issue," he says.

At the conference, Goodman argues that a string of CIA fiascos show that the U.S. should no longer conduct covert action in the post-Cold War era. That includes paramilitary operations, manipulating foreign elections and planting stories in foreign media, he says.

This point is later driven home by Jim Littleton, the CBC's director of journalistic ethics, who recounts how the CIA tried to infiltrate an agent into the CBC's Lebanon bureau in the 1980s.

"In my own experience, it's not at all unusual for agencies to try to recruit journalists," he says, adding that reporters wrongly suspected of being spies have been murdered in the Balkans and Africa.

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