In 1972, a senior analyst at the National Security Agency (NSA) reached out to the editors of the radical left-wing magazine Ramparts and volunteered to give a wide-ranging interview under the pseudonym of Winslow Peck. Though even he didn’t know it at the time, what Peck would tell the editors of Ramparts over several days in a San Francisco hotel room would come to change the course of Canadian history forever.
In that interview, Peck spoke widely about the NSA’s activities around the world, and made two references to Canada—specifically, a major Canadian agency called the CBNRC. According to him, this rather opaque acronym represented the Canadian equivalent to America’s NSA, and the UK’s shadowy GCHQ.
There was just one problem: the Canadian public had never heard of anything called the CBNRC.
The Canadian government had secretly collected the country’s post-war signals intelligence talent at the National Research Council (NRC) in 1946, establishing the intentionally vague-sounding Communications Branch: the CBNRC.
Three years later, Canada secretly signed a tailored amendment to a prior US intelligence arrangement with the UK, called the UKUSA Agreement. The contract guaranteed a mostly free exchange of intelligence between members, and the CBNRC’s secret activities were the main source of the intelligence Canada brought to the table. Australia and New Zealand signed onto the Agreement in 1956, completing the group widely known today as the Five Eyes.
Rather than arouse suspicion by coming at the Canadian establishment directly, they chose to begin their investigation in the United States. “I think the fact that I was American may have helped,” Dubro admitted over the phone in a thick Bostonian accent. “Once we stumbled on [the Ramparts interview], we started throwing the CBNRC into questions with US intelligence people. And they, stupidly, would tell us more.”
Macadam and Dubro had no real doubts about exposing the workings of a secret national security organization. “Of course, the KGB knew all of it,” Dubro argued, “so it didn’t really matter. Only the Canadian people didn’t know.” Support for this view came from, of all people, RCMP deputy commissioner Kelly; he told the pair in a separately published interview that “it’s amazing how much of the material that we keep secret the enemy knows about, but the ordinary man on the street doesn’t.”
The program was raised immediately in Parliament, mostly fodder for attacks on Prime Minister Trudeau. MPs seemed incredulous that they could have been kept in the dark about such a fundamental part of the government; former Prime Minister Diefenbaker even claimed that “any suggestion that anything of that kind was done when I was Prime Minister is false.”
Ultimately, it was this total lack of oversight and perhaps even direction that seemed to prompt real legislative action. While there was a general understanding that signals intelligence was necessary, it also became clear that there ought to be no room in Canada for a company of eavesdroppers with few checks or balances.