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Book Review: The Bridge in the Parks

Dennis G. Molinaro, ed. The Bridge in the Parks: The Five Eyes and Cold War Counter-Intelligence. University of Toronto Press, 2021.

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19 November, 2021
University of Oxford as seen from South Park, Oxford, U.K. John Alexander

The Bridge in the Parks takes its name from a 1935 essay in the Cherwell, the University of Oxford student newspaper. The student writer, also the newspaper’s editor, wrote of certain places where one might perch and joyfully listen in on the conversations of passers-by. He noted that few “superhuman creatures” could resist this urge, and he was clearly not among them. Listening in gave him insight into humanity, and indeed would form the backbone of his working life. After Oxford, the young author, Peter Dwyer, had a successful career in the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and worked as the North American liaison in Washington, D.C., when Soviet cypher clerk Igor Gouzenko defected in Ottawa. Dwyer raced to Ottawa, reporting on the progress of the investigation to MI6 spymaster Kim Philby, later revealed to be a Soviet agent. In 1950, Dwyer came to Canada permanently to work in its signals intelligence community and later became the director of the Canada Council for the Arts.

It’s a fitting title for a great collection.

Bridge in the Parks is visually evocative — the image in a reader’s mind is enhanced by nicely arranged cover art — and points to Dwyer’s life as a key intelligence officer in the Five Eyes community. Dwyer had an essential role in American, British and Canadian intelligence organizations in the early Cold War. He presumably also interacted with the intelligence agencies of Australia and New Zealand — the other two Five Eyes member states — as these relationships deepened and formalized.

From the book’s subtitle, one might presume this is a history of the Five Eyes organization, the intelligence-sharing arrangement among Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. That is not, however, the book’s focus. Instead, it is an exploration of Cold War counter-intelligence using the states of the Five Eyes as a lens. One chapter focuses on Australia, four on Canada, one on Britain, two on the United States and one on the Commonwealth Security Conferences of 1948 and 1951. New Zealand does not have a chapter of its own, but the smallest of the Five Eyes states is not ignored.  Gregory S. Kealey and Kerry A. Taylor’s chapter on the Commonwealth Security Conferences provide context to New Zealand’s specific challenges.

Dennis G. Molinaro’s introduction does an excellent job parsing out the commonalities of these chapters and reflecting on their relevance to modern counter-intelligence challenges. Molinaro has also ensured the chapters speak to one another — with ample references by one writer to the chapter of another in the same collection, which brings further cohesion.

In addition to solid editing, Molinaro contributed a chapter of his own: “‘Hunting ‘the Canadians’: Wiretapping, Counter-Intelligence, and the Search for Legal Authority.” It adds new detail to Molinaro’s 2017 Canadian Historical Review article on the PICNIC wiretapping program, a covert RCMP program established in 1951 by an order in council and continued under the authorities of the Official Secrets Act.

While some writings present the RCMP as anti-communist zealots, this new work is notable for its fair treatment of the force. Molinaro does not depict the Mounties as uninterested in or contemptuous of civil liberties but shows them seeking tools to address a poorly defined threat within the confines of their alarmingly imprecise legal authority.

Steve Hewitt’s chapter on transnational threat construction makes an outstanding addition to the history of how the Canadian state perceives domestic security threats. As we look back on two decades since the 9/11 attacks, it helpfully deconstructs the notion that the events that followed were an actual break from the past. Hewitt’s chapter draws on the results of 40 access-to-information requests.

Frances Reilly contributes a chapter on Operation PROFUNC, Canada’s Cold War plans to intern “prominent functionariesof the Communist Party of Canada in the event of war with the Soviet Union. This is the most detailed accounting of the program yet published. Interested readers should read her 2016 thesis from the University of Saskatchewan, available here.

The “non-Canadian” chapters are similarly strong. From Philp Deery’s chapter on Anne Neil (Australia’s most famous counter-intelligence agent) to John Breen’s depiction of President Gerald Ford’s relationship with the CIA in the wake of Nixon’s various scandals to Daniel W.B. Lomas and Christopher J. Murphy’s chapter on the British Foreign Office’s treatment of homosexuality, readers will find both excellent syntheses of the topics and direct challenges to conventional wisdom. Lomas and Murphy, for example, overturn the widely accepted belief that British Foreign Office officials persecuted homosexual employees to address security concerns and please their American counterparts. Instead, their chapter shows how plenty of domestic considerations and fear of scandal impacted the Foreign Office’s draconian actions.

I particularly enjoyed Marcella Bencivenni’s chapter on the often-forgotten trial of Carl Marzani: an Italian-American activist, Communist, veteran of the anarchist Durutti Column in the Spanish Civil War and filmmaker for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, precursor to the CIA), the State Department and later his own film company.  Bencivenni’s discussion of Marzani and his “loyalty trial” (for not disclosing his membership in the Communist Party upon joining the OSS) will be of interest to legal and intelligence scholars alike.

For the intelligence historian, state efforts at maintaining secrecy for matters concluded decades ago remain real barriers to understanding.

Appropriately, the last of the collection’s nine chapters, Timothy Andrew Sayle’s “Maintaining Innocence: The Curious Case of Wartime Intelligence,” provides an excellent historiographical examination of the long and bumpy road to our present understanding of Canada’s war-time signals and communications intelligence programs. The chapter is a nuanced examination focused on a theme that emerges in almost all the other chapters: for the intelligence historian, state efforts at maintaining secrecy for matters concluded decades ago remain real barriers to understanding. While access-to-information and similar programs are helpful tools for historians, describing these processes as imperfect would be too generous. Long delays, sometimes aggressive redacting, and inconsistency amongst departments in applying the rules can be very frustrating. This chapter pairs nicely with former CSIS director Reid Morden’s postscript, which recaps the volume’s key ideas and brings the reader back to the present-day challenge of counter-intelligence operations.

The Bridge in the Parks is a wide-ranging collection but not comprehensive. It does not pretend otherwise. As Reg Whitaker concludes in the foreword, “Much remains to be done, but this collection points the way to future research priorities.” It does so exceptionally well. For those interested in intelligence history, there is lots of new material and analysis to keep you turning the pages. For anyone looking to add some substantive knowledge to their interest in James Bond films and John le Carré novels, or perhaps anyone who likes listening in on conversations like the young Peter Dwyer or thinking about how states do such things at scale, this collection is about the best starting place you will find. And researchers looking for new topics of investigation will find inspiration for all kinds of intriguing projects just waiting to be undertaken. The editor and contributors are to be commended for this excellent contribution to the field of intelligence history.

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