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Who spied on Tommy Douglas in Canada?

A Federal Court hearing will decide whether to reveal the answer now that the federal government has dug in to fight a lawsuit that challenges its decision to prevent the public from learning the long-held secret.

Divulging Cold War spying techniques, the government argues in a document filed recently in the Federal Court case, would imperil today's spies, sources and covert investigations against terrorists.

The government wants to block the Canadian Press's bid for the RCMP's Tommy Douglas dossier. Federal officials say they will never reveal precisely how the Mounties once kept tabs on Mr. Douglas, known as the father of Canada's health-care system.

"The passing of time and the age of information cannot be used to conclude that its release will not cause damage," reads a Canadian Security Intelligence Service affidavit. "Sources may still be active. … Some of the investigations are entities that remain of interest for many decades."

What is more, further disclosures would "send a clear message to current and future human sources that the [Canadian Security Intelligence]Service is not able to guarantee the anonymity upon which their safety depends."

The sworn statement was written by Nicole Jalbert, the access-to-information co-ordinator for CSIS, which took over the Tommy Douglas dossier in the 1980s, after inheriting files from the disbanded RCMP security service. The Mounties had kept tabs on him for decades, concerned about his potential Communist connections.

In 2005, Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill made an access request for the RCMP dossier. Portions of the 1,100 page file were released, and they showed that Mr. Douglas had been monitored from his humble beginnings as Depression Era preacher almost until his death in 1986. In between, he served as premier of Saskatchewan and leader of the federal New Democrats.

Security dossiers typically become public 20 years after a target's death. The revealed portions of the file showed the Mounties had been listening to Mr. Douglas's speeches, studying articles he wrote and, at least once, overheard one of his private conversations.

But how the RCMP got that close to Mr. Douglas remains an open question.

The hundreds of pages that remain sealed include information about spy sources and spy methods. This is now at the heart of the news agency's Federal Court battle.

Paul Champ, the lawyer representing Canadian Press, argues that embarrassment, not state secrecy, is what is truly at stake. Federal agencies "engaged in certain surveillance practices they now find embarrassing," he said in an interview.

But he acknowledged that requests for identities of past confidential sources are a potential hurdle. "Current sources will want to have that re-assurance that when they are 70 or 80 years old, an access to information request won't peel back the information that they were a confidential source," Mr. Champ said.

He said he is seeking only the identities of informants who have died.

Dead or alive, however, sources are sacrosanct in the spy world.

Last fall, CSIS dropped a terrorism case, saying that judges were imperilling national security by ordering too many disclosures that could point to informants' identities.

International partnerships are also jealously guarded. Canadian spy agencies have always tried to keep under wraps their exchanges with allies, such as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency - often expressing fears that they would curtail the flow of intelligence if information about the partnership leaked out.

The Canadian Press's bid for greater disclosure is supported by Shirley Douglas, the daughter of the deceased politician. (And mother of Kiefer Sutherland, who plays a spy in the U.S. television program 24.

"Many investigative techniques that were used in the '60s are still relevant today," reads the government affidavit from Ms. Jalbert

Some experts disagree. "The notion that once-sensitive security and intelligence records remain sensitive for eternity is a patent absurdity," said Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto security expert, who wrote an affidavit supporting greater disclosure.