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Patriot Games
Canadian style

Spying is a grubby word. It evokes images of cloak and dagger operations, of ruthless agents laying down their lives in the service of the chosen cause. What the cause was or is or might be doesn't matter. The story of Camp X near Oshawa, Ontario, is firmly in this category although the events it describes happened so long ago and far away that most are too young to remember or too old to want to.

Does a Camp X or its equivalent exist today? Hardly, unless one is taken in by the hubris of the U.S. news media. On the Canadian scene, however, there was at one time an air of sophisticated charm that would put James Bond's boss to shame. In this writer's experience, the Canadian government conducted its ‘intelligence activities' with excessive civility over a cup of coffee. At least, it did so in the early 1970s when the then Department of External Affairs exercised its considerable charm and influence well before CSIS came into being.

My employer, a local engineering enterprise, had secured a number of contracts in the Middle East and needed someone to do the field work, preferably with a knowledge of Arabic. After a diligent search of personnel records in its U. S. head office it got me.

With hardly time to brush up my Arabic, which was minimal and at kindergarten level, I flew to Washington to obtain an entry visa from the Libyan Consulate. This because Libya had no diplomatic relations with Canada. Two days later, there was a telephone call from External Affairs inviting me to visit the its offices on Sussex Drive.

Being a compliant patriot, but having no idea of the reason for the summons, I presented myself at External Affairs and was there escorted into the presence of the Head of the Arab Desk. For obvious reasons, his name is withheld. Later, however, he became an ambassador.

We sat in comfort in a vast reception room heavy with in-laid furniture and deep-seated armchairs with the smell of leather. Coffee poured from a silver coffee pot into bone China cups on a silver tray was decidedly not cafeteria style.

Not to make a shaggy dog story out of what was a model exercise in diplomatic persuasion, I agreed to report on matters of interest on the Libyan scene. The grace and style with which this polished diplomat accomplished his purpose is worthy of a leading character in The School for Scandal.

Returning to Cobourg that same day, I couldn't help reflecting that one expected this sort of skullduggery from the British Foreign Office or the U. S. Department of State. Coming from External Affairs, however, it was a little bit like discovering your favourite maiden aunt is whoring it up on a Saturday night.

In practical terms, what did my excursion in the murky world of espionage yield? To understand, one first has to know the times.

Idi Amin was slaughtering his own people in the 1970s, making a thorough nuisance of himself in Uganda and seeking Libyan help. (I'd met him in 1968 in Kampala when he was head of ordnance in the Ugandan Army. He was a man of frightening aspect even then. His office, furnished with black mahogany furniture and blood-red drapery was of truly ominous appearance.) Colonel Qadaffi, not nearly as bad as he is painted, was at loggerheads with Egypt and preparing for war.

Carlos, the terrorist was then resident in Libya. Off-shore, on the Island of Malta, the Israelis were secretly preparing a pre-emptive strike against the Colonel's ballistic missile sites. All in all, Libya was a nice kettle of fish to jump into.

Installing equipment at Tripoli Airport was a perfect cover for making myself useful to External Affairs as well as reporting for a couple of international journals, which I'd been doing for a few years.

There was ample opportunity to check and report on matters of interest. For instance, Libya had more tanks than the combined tank strength of the Allied and Axis forces in North Africa during WWII. Could anything be more ridiculous? What was more, this weaponry was, electronically, so sophisticated it needed an army of technicians to maintain it; and who provided this service? None other than General Dynamics of the U.S.A. (The CIA was there in strength.)

Tripoli was swarming with Chinese, too, thousands of them, studying the City's traffic problems. Every monitor had a VW, so it didn't take a Ph D in transportation to realize that the Chinese monitors were the problem.

In his quarrel with Egypt, Qadaffi moved his armour to the Libyan-Egyptian border via the coast road. The six-inch deep ruts in the newly-surfaced highway were graphic evidence of the movement of tank transporters travelling east.

All this intelligence - if one may so term it - dutifully reported, went to External Affairs via Geneva. My courier had impeccable credentials, for he was one of the Colonel's pilots, an ex-patriate Britisher who, again, must remain anonymous. Had he, like me, succumbed to some civil servant's honeyed talk?

Watershed Magazine
Spring 2003

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