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Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) Chief John Adams tours CSEC's new headquarter in Ottawa on Dec. 21, 2010. (DAVE CHAN/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) Chief John Adams tours CSEC's new headquarter in Ottawa on Dec. 21, 2010. (DAVE CHAN/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

CSEC

Canada's little-known spy agency comes out into the open Add to ...

A technocrat who has battled public-sector unions in the past, Mr. Adams has swayed Defence Minister Peter MacKay to sign off on allowing a consortium of companies to build and manage the new headquarters. The Australian-based Plenary Group won a competitive bidding process and is to absorb the cost of construction, upkeep and basic facilities management while the federal government "buys" the property over 34 years - much like the way a condominium owner pays off a long-term mortgage and monthly maintenance fees.

A political operator who can make his points with a wink, Mr. Adams travelled an interesting road to get to the spy world. In the 1960s, he graduated from the Royal Military College of Canada before studying arts at Oxford. He joined the military and rose to the rank of major-general before heading to Ottawa. The federal government has trusted him with running army bases, military procurement and the Coast Guard before handing him the reins of CSEC.

Canada has never tried the particular type of public-private building arrangement slated for CSEC's headquarters. "This is fairly new, but GCHQ has done it," Mr. Adams said, referencing the British counterpart agency, Government Communications Headquarters. There were complaints about cost overruns at that facility, but the CSEC chief said his headquarters should save Canadian taxpayers almost $180-million over the coming decades if everything goes to plan.

Much of the cost is being driven by mechanical engineering - secure closed networks have to be built; rows upon rows of computers and servers and cooling systems have to be installed; and the backup electrical generators need to be in place in case the public grid goes down. Conceptions of the building also call for a "rapid response" meeting room, in the event that terrorists strike.

Yet critics are seizing on seemingly superfluous trims. There are plans for a sprawling "glass curtain" wall incorporating an artist's concept for an "encryption code pattern." Many sports and leisure facilities are planned.

Officials at CSEC say nothing is final and are already dialling down some of the more lavish touches contemplated in the mockups. "There will be no [hockey]rink and there will be no hobby garden," says Mr. Adams, who admits he's a fitness nut.

Keeping Canada in the loop

Officials say Canada's signals-intelligence capability gives us extra sets of ears abroad, since the very existence of CSEC gives Ottawa access to the tens of billions of secrets dredged up by larger partner agencies, including the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters and the U.S. National Security Agency.

Since the end of the Second World War, Canada has been part of an intelligence arrangement where a loose consortium of spy agencies from English-speaking countries freely trade their state secrets.

Spymasters argue that Canadian taxpayers' $300-million-a-year commitment to CSEC is a bargain.

And Canadian prime ministers can get jittery if someone threatens to turn off the intelligence tap, as shown in correspondence that surfaced in the recent WikiLeaks data dump. Paul Martin is said to have lobbied U.S. president George W. Bush to keep Ottawa in the intelligence loop, amid fears Canada would be cut off for refusing to send soldiers to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Ottawa "is aware that we are creating a separate U.S.-U.K.-Australia channel for sharing sensitive intelligence, including information that traditionally has been U.S. eyes only," reads a 2004 U.S. State Department briefing to Mr. Bush.

Canada "has expressed concern at multiple levels that their exclusion from a traditional 'four-eyes' construct is 'punishment' for Canada's non-participation in Iraq and they fear that the Iraq-related channel may evolve into a more permanent 'three-eyes' only structure."

A threat to national security? Some CSEC staff argue contracting out jobs leaves Canada at risk

One of the more alarming criticisms about the new signals-intelligence complex is that it's a threat to our national security.

Part of the plan involves contracting out about 90 government jobs to the private-sector consortium that will manage the new buildings over the next 34 years. These contractors will do the less sensitive work - such as laying cables around the building, running an information-technology help desk or working as security guards. They will not be cryptographers or signals spies.

Even so, the plan has incensed some CSEC staff who argue that top secrets are at risk, given that a rotating cast of contractors will be less loyal than sworn-to-secrecy federal employees.

"I have to go to my grave with my secrets, but there's a real possibility these people will WikiLeak real secrets," said one retired CSEC employee, who asked not to be named because he said he feared "retribution."

"Public sector employees are under a lot more disciplined scrutiny," said John MacLennan, head of the Union of National Defence Employees.

In an interview, CSEC chief John Adams dismissed the concern about privatization, saying any outside contractors would be vetted for appropriate security clearances. Signals-intelligence agencies in Britain and the United States have used large numbers of private-sector contractors without problems, he said, adding that CSEC already contracts out some jobs.

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