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Federal cabinet secretly approved Cold War wiretaps on anyone deemed 'subversive,' historian finds

Historian Dennis Molinaro has found top secret documents from the dawn of the Cold War that show the federal government secretly approved an RCMP surveillance program to wiretap suspected spies, communist sympathizers and others deemed "disloyal" or "subversive."

'I was stunned': Historian documents RCMP wiretapping program OK'd in 1951 and still not acknowledged

Historian Dennis Molinaro of Trent University has found documents detailing the RCMP's secret Cold War wiretapping program, code-named Picnic. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

A Canadian historian has found top secret documents from the dawn of the Cold War that show the federal government secretly approved an RCMP surveillance program to wiretap suspected spies, communist sympathizers and others deemed "disloyal" or "subversive."

Dennis Molinaro of Trent University says he was stunned to discover documents that show the cabinet of Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent passed a "secret order" in 1951 to authorize the RCMP surveillance, code-named Picnic.

But the actual cabinet edict, which formed the cornerstone of decades of future wiretapping, was never revealed to Parliament and never transferred to Canada's archives.

"Ultimately, we don't know how big it gets, how far it goes, how long people are wiretapped," Molinaro told CBC News. "There are indications that this wiretapping goes on until at least the second term of Pierre Elliott Trudeau's government."

He says officials in the Privy Council Office refuse to release the 65-year-old secret order — or even confirm it exists.

'No end date' to wiretapping

Canada was gripped by Cold War fears of communist infiltrators in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk working at the Soviet Union's Embassy in Ottawa defected in 1945 along with a trove of documents revealing a network of Soviet spies working in Canada, the U.S. and U.K.

When former Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko appeared in public after his defection in Ottawa in 1945, he wore a pillowcase to shield his face. (Associated Press, Libraries and Archives Canada)

By 1950, Canada had passed an Emergency Powers Act and sent troops to fight in the Korean War, a Cold War showdown between the U.S. and USSR.

Top secret cabinet documents Molinaro found at Library and Archives Canada show the federal government authorized operation Picnic in 1951, and that it included the "monitoring of subversive telephone conversations."

But by 1954, the fighting was over in Korea, and the emergency powers legislation was set to expire. Molinaro discovered the government and RCMP opted to secretly keep the wiretapping program going during peacetime using Canada's Official Secrets Act.

"I was stunned, to be honest," Molinaro said. "What becomes particularly fascinating is that the file that they gave me discusses the ways to keep wiretapping going beyond the emergency period … with no end date."

Access denied

Molinaro says he's spent 10 frustrating months trying to get his hands on the original cabinet wiretapping edict — Order-in-council 1951-3486 —  but has been repeatedly rebuffed.

"Historians need to do their job." he said. "We need to write a history of the country and of the people of this country. And we can't do it if we don't have documents. "It's not my job to write a government-approved history and that, in essence, is what can happen when material is not being turned over to the archives."

He says the Privy Council Office initially referred him to Library and Archives Canada.

Archivists there pulled boxes of cabinet files. They told CBC News they were baffled when they discovered a handwritten note indicating the secret order was kept in the office of the clerk of the Privy Council, Norman Alexander Robertson, who served from 1949 to 1952.

A handwritten note in the file indicates the secret order authorizing operation Picnic was kept in the office of the clerk of the Privy Council. (CBC)

So Molinaro contacted the Privy Council for a second time this summer but says he was advised, once again, to make an appointment at the national archives.

Instead, he submitted an access to information request for the Privy Council Office to hand over a copy of the secret order. 

In its response sent three weeks ago, the office refused to "confirm or deny the existence of the records." It said even if the government has the secret order, officials would be exempt from releasing it publicly for fear the 65-year-old government decision could be "injurious" to Canada's international relations and covert police techniques.

This infuriates other historians and government watchdogs.

"I mean, the Cold War is over! Right?" said Steve Hewitt of the University of Birmingham in the U.K., who has written several books on the Cold War and Canada's spying activities.

He called Molinaro's findings "significant."

"This appears to be a key beginning, so to speak, of really organized surveillance of the type that goes on today." 

Molinaro has spent the past 10 months trying to find order-in-council 1951-3486. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

He said there's been a perception among historians that the RCMP often overstepped its authority.

"This document says actually no — it was sanctioned from the highest levels of the Canadian state, and they were carrying out the bidding of various governments over the years," he said.

Duff Conacher, founder of the Ottawa-based advocacy group Democracy Watch, said the failure to release this document from 1951 flies in the face of promises from the Liberal government to be more transparent and open up the access to information system.

Duff Conacher, founder of the Ottawa-based advocacy group Democracy Watch, sees no reason the secret order shouldn't be released. (CBC)

"I don't think you'd have, really, any government official even alive now that it would affect — here or in any other country," he said. "And as a result, it is not going to damage our relations with any other country or our national security concerns now."

For two weeks, CBC News posed questions to officials at the Privy Council Office in Ottawa and requested to see order-in-council 1951-3486. The office has provided no responses, despite repeated promises to do so, and has offered no comment.

New proposals, secret history

Molinaro argued Canadians need to see the original document because the federal government and RCMP are in talks to possibly expand police powers for greater online and digital surveillance.

"If you are requesting more power for surveillance, more power for these activities, that's fine if we can at least evaluate where we've been with this to know where we are going to go," he said.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson says the police need expanded powers to track suspects who know how to cover their digital tracks. (Patrick Doyle/the Toronto Star)

He says the Picnic program began as Canada joined what became known as the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the U.S., U.K.,  Australia and New Zealand. He says it's important to understand the foundations of intelligence sharing, particularly because Canada and the Five Eyes have dramatically expanded their capabilities and integration since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

He also says the secrecy and political deceptions found in the top secret Picnic documents offer important lessons about the importance of proper oversight of police and intelligence agencies that apply today.

"Why should parliamentarians be trusted as the guardians of oversight? I mean, in these documents I see an attempt to hide, to try to conceal information from the public deliberately that stems all the way up to the Prime Minister's Office," he said.

"We're talking about a program that went on through St-Laurent's government, through Diefenbaker's government, through Pearson's government, Pierre Trudeau's government. So we shouldn't just assume that Parliament and the government is the best means of oversight.

"Who's watching the watchers?"


  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the clerk of the Privy Council from 1949 to 1952 as Norman Alexander Robinson. In fact, the clerk was Norman Alexander Robertson.
    Dec 15, 2016 10:16 AM ET


Dave Seglins

CBC Investigations

Dave Seglins is an investigative journalist whose recent work includes exposés on global ticket scalping, offshore tax avoidance and government surveillance. He covers a range of domestic and international issues, including rail safety, policing, government and corporate corruption.