The real facts behind the CSIS documentary

Brian Stewart explains the backstory to the CSIS storm.

The storm caused by CSIS director Richard Fadden's extraordinary series of statements to the CBC, which were followed by a retraction of sorts, has confused some commentators and led to some wild speculation.

As one of the people largely responsible for this project, I'd like to set out clearly how these two documentaries about Canada's intelligence agency came about.

For it has even been suggested that The National's explosive interview with Fadden was held back for weeks, if not months, in order to make it public only on the eve of the Chinese president's visit for the G20 summit.

Not so. In fact the critical interview between Peter Mansbridge and Richard Fadden was only conducted Monday afternoon. That is Monday of this week. The portion that caused all the controversy aired the next evening.

Those of you who saw these documentaries will recall that part one on Monday Night dealt with the CSIS fight against terrorism. Part two, the next evening, covered counter-espionage.

That's why Fadden's comments about foreign infiltration into Canada was in the Tuesday broadcast.

Raced to air

Far from holding the Fadden interview in our CBC pockets for a lengthy period, we raced it to air in little over 24 hours.

CSIS director Richard Fadden, shown here in 2002 on Parliament Hill,in his former position as deputy clerk of the Privy Council. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

As for the timing of these broadcasts, they had been in the works for many months, but with no thought of the G-summits or of an official Chinese visit in mind.

I had actually first approached CSIS more than a year ago with the seemingly wild notion that they might allow CBC to have an "inside look" at their world as part of a special hosted by Peter Mansbridge.

It was only in January that we received the go-ahead from them for what would amount to an unprecedented television event.

From the beginning, it was clearly understood that the broadcasts would involve documentaries, written by me, as well as a special Mansbridge/Fadden interview. We all knew it was going to be a long and arduous challenge to pull this off.

Documentaries of this complexity take time to produce, especially in this case given the "secret world" we were looking into and the multiple negotiations that had to be undertaken with CSIS.

We had to agree to film the faces of only a very few CSIS personnel. Our very experienced producer Marc Baby struggled for months with the many restrictions on every angle he could shoot.

While CSIS deserves enormous credit for being this transparent, negotiations and uneasy first steps on both sides inevitably meant delays and piecemeal production.

Looking for clarity

It has been reported that the CBC had first approached Fadden in the spring to repeat remarks on foreign infiltration that he had made at a private, videotaped speech before the Canadian chiefs of police.

That is not correct. In fact, this event at the Royal Canadian Military Institution was the first tape we shot in the whole project. It was meant as background material only, a chance to show Fadden at a public event.

What Fadden said to Peter Mansbridge about foreign influence:

"We just don't keep information to ourselves. In the case of the couple of cabinet ministers we are in process of discussing with the centre how are going to inform those provinces.

"Question: The centre being?

"Answer: Sorry, the Privy Council Office. The prime minister's department. We are trying to get a sense of how we would best let them know that there may be a problem. I am making this comment because I think it's a real danger that people are, be totally oblivious to this kind of issue."

Everything about this project was long term and the crucial accountability interview with Fadden was planned to coincide with the end of documentary production.

We had originally hoped to broadcast the show live from CSIS headquarters, but the technical problems proved to be too severe.

In the end, Peter Mansbridge flew to Ottawa on Monday, June 21, to interview Fadden at CSIS headquarters. 

We knew CSIS was concerned about foreign agents of influence within Canadian politics and naturally planned to raise it. We wanted clarity.

We had no idea then that the director would go so far or that he would make his statement (later retracted) that he had raised the threat at the highest level.

In the interview, Fadden made a point of underlining how important he felt it was that Canadians know about this infiltration.

That's the story of how the special broadcasts came to be aired this week.

The fact that no one else has ever attempted such a project in Canadian history may indicate just how new and daunting the enterprise was and how proud we are of those two nights on The National.