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Secrets? What Secrets?

| September 18, 2011
CSIS Director Fadden waits to testify on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

Opposition parties have been calling for the resignation of Conservative MP Bob Dechert after it was revealed he had sent intimate e-mails to a journalist working for the Xinhua News Agency. The Chinese media are believed to be more interested in spying on foreign countries than in genuine reporting. As parliamentary Secretary to Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Mr. Dechert certainly lacked judgment when he got involved with a Chinese ‘journalist’. But does this story deserve all the attention it got?

There is a tendency on Parliament Hill, when that sort of sex-spy affair comes up, to forget that Canada is not a major player in international affairs. I’d be very surprised if Mr. Baird himself had in his mind or his briefcase information that, in the hands of the ‘enemy’, would have important consequences on world affairs, or even on Canada’s interests. This is even more the case for Mr. Dechert, even though the media, to make the story more interesting, chose to call him ‘a senior Harper government MP’. In my experience, Parliamentary Secretaries have no power whatsoever. They exist to replace the Minister in Parliament while he or she attends to more important business. Whatever statements they make have been written by bureaucrats and vetted by the minister’s political staff (or the reverse). 

That reminds me of Maxime Bernier, who had to resign after leaving ‘secret’ documents at his girlfriend’s apartment. The incident was a spectacular demonstration of carelessness that proved he was unfit to be part of Cabinet. But, had Julie Couillard read all 500 pages, would she have become a danger to Canada’s security? Had she given these to her former biker boyfriend, would he have been interested in the Harper government’s views on the future of NATO?

CSIS’s director Richard Fadden has warned that some Canadian politicians at the provincial level have fallen under the control of foreign governments, probably China. Still, I wonder why exactly the Chinese would be interested in influencing the decisions of any of our provincial governments.

The truth is, now as in the past, reporters and politicians alike cannot resist these James Bond-like stories. Remember Pierre Sévigny, war hero and Associate Defense minister in John Diefenbaker’s government?  When it was discovered that Sévigny had had a close relationship with Gerda Munsinger, a prostitute from East Germany, a huge controversy erupted, threatening to derail Lester Pearson’s minority government. Yet, again, what crucial information could Sévigny have shared with Munsinger?

Like most Canadians, I like to think that our country can, as a G8 middle power, play an significant role in world affairs. Yet I have a very hard time believing that our foreign policy officers carry with them information so sensitive that, in a spy’s hands, it could have a major impact in world or continental affairs. 

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

  • Yours Sincerely

    Canada is indeed a middle power, however, it is middle powers that are the key constituents of greater ones. Turkey’s role in the invasion of Iraq, Pakistan’s ongoing role in the Afghanistan war, and Singapore’s role in the south china sea are all examples of smaller nations being key players in large events.

  • John

    This is a very naive and dangerous way of thinking. First, it belittles Canada. We are part of a major alliance and as such have access to information of global consequence. Next, the behavior of PM Bob Dechert is unbecoming of a married person, and playing down his transgression is plainly wrong. Moreover, Bob Dechert’s actions are inconsistent with a good judgement, especially for a member of Parliement. It would not be the first time that a foreign government uses attractive women for their purposes. Finally, we need to pay more attention to what someone of reputation and standing of Richard Fadden tells us about attempts by foreign governments to influence our institutions which are the guardians of our national interests and of our way of life. Naively trusting people have been burned more frequently than those who are more realistic about the ways of the world. John Bruk

  • Fredericlabarre

    This argument is not only naive, but ignorant of the way that foreign power conduct intelligence work and asset recruitment. MP Dechert is not a target for what he knows, but for whom he knows, and whom he may get to know as he climbs the political echelons. And as he climbs the political ladder, he may find himself in the position to make decisions that may be biased by these relationships. Lest we forget, adversarial powers – some of which are our own NATO Allies by the way – have a longer term vision to these sorts of things.

    As an MP he should be wary of foreign interference, and political interdependence is no excuse for maintaining an arms-length relationship with foreign agents.

  • Hugh Stephens

    What no one seems to have focussed much on is the fact that Mr. Dechert’s billet-doux were outed by the Xinhua correspondent’s husband, who saw himself as the third corner of a love triangle. This is the real news in this affair for such an event could not have happened until the recent Internet explosion in China. Xinhua (or the Chinese intelligence services if you believe the worst) didn’t do a very good job of vetting their ‘spy’ since she clearly had an unstable domestic situation which has come back to bite them. In past years, this would have been unthinkable. The “cheated on” spouse would not have dared to take such an action, nor would he or she have had the means to do so. He or she would under closer control and would have suppressed any personal feelings to the greater good of the State, out of fear or out of duty And there would have been virtually no way to vent his personal frustrations. The internet has changed all that. China is riding a tiger with the internet, one that it is trying hard to tame, but with mixed success. China cannot have been amused to see itself put at the centre of this, turning the spotlight once more on its intelligence-gathering apparatus.

    Mr. Dechert was naive and clearly lacking in judgment. Rong Shi was not very adept either. If she was a spy, she was singularly ineffective. More likely, she was simply required to report on her contacts and cultivate influential people. The Chinese always take the long term view.

    • Guy

      The long term view is the whole point the author of this article seems to have missed.

  • Inventor

    Is the biggest threat from China not an economic one?
    A more interesting story is why heavy Chinese accent people are being put in the role of reviewing SRED Scientific Research and Experimental Development tax credit applications. This puts a possible direct connection with the trade-secret technology of all of our businesses being leaked to China. Who has some pull with a paper that can get access to the CRA Canadian Revenue Agency policies? Second generation canadians would mitigate the risk, but why oh why a first generation immigrant? Maybe RIM’s secrets are leaking; a significant IP strategy is to not apply for a patent on some technology due to the difficulty in detection and enforcement. My understanding is that Google does not patent some of its search engine techniques for this reason. It is not obvious to most that a SRED leaky whole might exist

  • Davidscammell

    Our provincial governments hold power over sections the federal government has no say in. Healthcare, education, and natural resources are all areas the provincial government controls. What the Chinese want or have planned is not easy to say but with a massive economy like China, easy and sustained access to natural resources could have a part in provincial politics.

  • Guest

    This is a sad and pathetic way to excuse inappropriate and irresponsible behaviour in our elected representatives. Appearance is reality in politics. If she looks like a spy, could be a spy – good enough; she’s a spy. And the responsible politician removes himself from negative appearances.

    Furthermore the whole concept of “It’s okay for us to get spied on because we have nothing to steal” is a sad, pathetic baby argument on two counts: ignorance of the fact that Canada DOES have valuable information to a spy (ie. the location of nuclear missles that we regularly disarm in our nuclear reactors) and the second is on principle. The fact that you can survive taking a beating doesn’t justify you getting beaten, now does it?