The government has been using travelling Canadians such as businessmen and scientists as spies to collect intelligence on foreign countries, a senior federal official will reveal at a weekend speech in Ottawa.
The official will explain how since 1953, authorities working under a secretive program have been interviewing Canadian immigrants and travellers in the hope of gleaning political, economic, military and scientific intelligence.
Targets of the citizen spy program have included the Soviet Bloc, China and Cuba. Up to 200 Canadians were selected to take part each year, chosen for their powers of observation and access to information of value to the intelligence community.
"Throughout its existence, the program succeeded in remaining discreet and anonymous," according to a draft copy of a paper to be presented by Kurt Jensen, the deputy director of foreign intelligence at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
Although the paper covers the period 1953 to 1990, the intelligence program continues to this day.
"It's still in existence, still operating," Reynald Doiron, a Foreign Affairs spokesman, said yesterday, although he added: "It's not advertised."
The paper was to be tabled at a conference organized by the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies. Other speakers include Giuliano Zaccardelli, the RCMP commissioner, and Ward Elcock, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service director.
Based on government documents that remain classified, the paper says the so-called "interview program" began as a military operation to harness ordinary citizens to peek behind the Iron Curtain, but it is now run by the Foreign Intelligence Division of Foreign Affairs.
The information garnered through the interviews has helped Ottawa assess the military might of Western foes and has at times provided "highly valued contributions to the pool of foreign military intelligence available to the Western alliance."
Initially, the program was meant to fill an "information vacuum" in Canada's intelligence, particularly in Eastern Europe, where Canada had a slim diplomatic presence. It listed its mandate as the "interrogation of immigrants and Canadian representatives of commercial firms and government departments visiting abroad."
By 1958, the government had started meeting with a "select" group of travellers before they left for overseas trips in order to brief them about Canada's intelligence needs. "This involved a very small number of travellers who would have access to areas of particular intelligence interest," the draft paper says.
The paper says that this placed them "in potential danger if their actions came to the attention of hostile security services."
The travellers were not given any intelligence gathering equipment and were told not to take photos, make sketches or take notes, and they were not to discuss their mission with anyone.
The interview program was voluntary and coercion was never used, Mr. Jensen said. Those who participated were not paid, although they were given money to make up for their out-of-pocket expenses.
Few people approached for information refused.
They were promised their activities would remain confidential. "Great caution was exercised to protect the privacy of participants," the paper says. "Many of those interviewed in the early years were engineers or technicians or industrial executives, academics or scientists."
The program was considered a great success. One source in the field of electro-chemistry provided information that resulted in 11 reports totalling 215 pages and answered about 800 specific intelligence questions.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the program has shifted its focus from Eastern Europe to other "overlooked" parts of the world, but the paper does not discuss those and Mr. Jensen declined to elaborate.
"This program is similar to the intelligence collection efforts of many other countries," said Professor Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
"Travellers visiting places that are ordinarily difficult to get to may be asked to share information as to what they saw, what they experienced, with their country's intelligence authorities," said Mr. Rudner, who is also president of CASIS and one of the conference organizers.