It was an odd setting to make such a provocative declaration: a speech to the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. Nonetheless, that is where Joseph McCarthy is said to have pulled out a piece of paper on which, he claimed, were the names of 205 people working for the U.S. State Department who were operatives of the Soviet Communist Party.
Mr. McCarthy, of course, would soon lend his face and name to an ugly smear campaign aimed at rooting out ordinary Americans thought to be carrying out very un-American activities. The Republican Senator would never produce a shred of evidence to back up his claims. Still, his reckless crusade would ruin the lives of hundreds of innocent people before it was over.
We note this not to suggest that the accusations that CSIS director Richard Fadden made on CBC's The National Tuesday night are absolutely comparable, but there are certainly some worrisome similarities.
As most know by now, Mr. Fadden told CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge in an interview that a number of Canadian politicians had fallen under the influence of foreign powers. He said the group included cabinet ministers in a couple of provinces. Additionally, he said there were politicians at the municipal level in British Columbia believed to be working for countries such as China, India and others in the Middle East.
But it was in describing how this economic espionage might be occurring that Mr. Fadden exacerbated the problem. "You invite someone back to the homeland, you pay for their trips …"
Back to the homeland? Pretty much a tip off that the persons of interest, the alleged traitors, are likely people who originally come from one of these foreign countries. So suddenly, provincial cabinet ministers of Iranian or South Asian lineage, for example, instantly become suspects.
It was no coincidence that the first municipal politician in B.C. that The Globe and Mail went to for reaction on this story was someone of Chinese descent: Raymond Louie, a Vancouver city councillor. Remarkably, Mr. Louie did not seem to be too offended by the stink bomb that Mr. Fadden threw into Canadian political circles. Nor was he inclined to start worrying about being the target of some kind of covert operation to ferret out these foreign moles.
I'm not sure he'll remain quite as nonplussed about the issue after he gives it a bit more thought.
It should be noted that Mr. Fadden issued a statement Wednesday in an obvious attempt to douse a controversy that has the potential to erupt into a full-fledged political witch-hunt. He said CSIS had not yet notified the Prime Minister's Office about his intelligence because the agency had not "deemed the cases to be of sufficient concern to bring them to the attention of provincial authorities."
If true, Mr. Fadden's actions can only be described as remarkably careless and irresponsible. The PMO must now wonder whether this man has the judgment and competency to be heading up such an important institution.
But I don't believe for a second that CSIS doesn't consider the information to which Mr. Fadden alluded to be serious and legitimate. Nor do I do believe that there aren't politicians in our country currently under surveillance and suspected of being a type of spy. It is too late for the kind of lame retraction of the ilk issued by the director Wednesday in an obvious bit of damage control.
Mr. Fadden's clarification is an attempt to explain why he went public with this information during a television interview - a setting only slightly less odd than the one Joseph McCarthy chose to make his ground-shaking allegations - before apprising the PMO of the intelligence the agency had gathered.
Mr. Fadden got carried away trying to impress Mr. Mansbridge with all the important and fine work that our federal spy agency does. The pending G8 and G20 summits were the perfect backdrop against which the CSIS director could justify the existence of his often-maligned organization.
But in his enthusiasm, he let go of secrets that should never have been made public. Now that they have, there is no stuffing them back into the spy director's little black briefcase.
The affair has produced justifiable outrage around the country. Provincial premiers such as Dalton McGuinty and Gordon Campbell have demanded a full explanation. The B.C. Premier believes the CSIS director has tainted the reputations of immigrants everywhere. If Mr. Fadden has evidence, then the onus is on him to name names.
My guess is we'll be looking for a new spy director within days.