Canadian spies secretly studied Soviet movies

An image from an old Russian movie poster

Canadian Press
Updated: Sun. Aug. 14 2005 11:37 PM ET

OTTAWA — Canadian spies secretly analyzed Soviet movies during the Cold War in the hope of gleaning useful intelligence, a newly declassified study reveals.

For a brief time in the mid-1950s, a little-known Ottawa agency played the role of film critic "in what may have been a unique intelligence-gathering project among its western allies,'' the study says.

The Joint Intelligence Bureau gathered up prints of Soviet films screened in Canada and scanned them for background scenes of special interest, such as equipment, factories and military processions.

Officials then reproduced negatives of relevant footage for the "imaginative, but short-lived'' initiative, says the book-length study prepared for the federal government by Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto history professor.

"The film project was a bit like watching the May Day parades -- you might just catch a glimpse of something that maybe the Soviets hadn't really meant you to see,'' Wark said in an interview.

The Canadian Press obtained a draft copy of Wark's 265-page manuscript under the Access to Information Act.

Substantial portions of the top secret document, including an entire chapter, were considered too sensitive to release -- even though the Soviet threat crumbled along with the Berlin Wall years ago.

Wark especially questions the need for continued secrecy about Canada's efforts to establish an electronic eavesdropping outpost in the far North to keep tabs on Moscow.

"It's a remarkable story of struggle against the odds to do something in a high-tech world that at many times looked impossible.''

The study, based on thousands of pages of mostly still-secret records, traces the history of the Joint Intelligence Bureau, a division of the Defence Department that took on numerous secret tasks following the Second World War.

The bureau churned out reports on topics ranging from airfield construction in the East Bloc to the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948.

In the early days of the Cold War, Wark's study reveals, the Canadian military feared Soviet troops would seize Arctic islands as the opening salvo of a North American invasion.

A committee of intelligence officials surmised the most likely route for an air assault was via the north, with the Russians developing "secret intermediate air bases'' on Spitzbergen, in northern Greenland, and Canada's Ellesmere Island as early as the 1950s.

"The Soviet air force will be capable of attacking all vulnerable areas in Canada and the U.S.A. with guided missiles and very long range air bombardment from captured bases in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago,'' read one strategic assessment from 1946.

The earliest Canadian appreciations of Soviet strength were often "quite fantastical'' --fuelled by an unwillingness to be critical and an often fatal absence of solid intelligence, Wark said in the interview.

The desire to keep abreast of Soviet intentions prompted the creation in 1956 of a secret listening station at the top of the world in Alert, N.W.T.

Other options, such as patrolling the Arctic with a Canadian equivalent of the American U-2 spy plane, were rejected.

Nonetheless, Wark says, the Soviet threat was hugely influential in spurring the federal government to embrace and transform the North through map-making, contact with remote communities and creation of the Distant Early Warning line of radar facilities.

In 1954, the Joint Intelligence Bureau initiated an annual "Arctic Indoctrination'' course, primarily for curious members of allied intelligence services, that took them to northern Manitoba and other isolated spots.

"One of the attractions seemed to have been a `camp out on the barrens,' which involved the tour officers spending a night under canvas in Churchill, no doubt with one ear cocked for roaming polar bears,'' Wark writes.

The course was really "an exotic holiday'' -- a means of generating goodwill with allies including the United States.

Still, the Joint Intelligence Bureau did undertake some serious study of Soviet territory, analysing the Northern Sea Route, transportation facilities and Moscow's exploitation of resources such as timber, diamonds, oil and gold, the study says.

The movie project died in 1956, "perhaps because of the stupor induced among JIB (intelligence bureau) officers by the tedium of having to screen numberless Soviet propaganda films,'' Wark writes.

The cinematic effort had grown out of a program to collect pieces of captured Soviet military hardware to determine when and where they were manufactured.

"The Canadians developed a reputation, curiously, for being the world's expert on factory serial numbers in terms of Soviet military production,'' Wark said.

Not exactly the stuff of James Bond, but apparently useful to Canada's allies.

Wark believes the niche reflects the "quite eccentric'' bent of the Joint Intelligence Bureau's leadership, a clutch of economists and technocrats with a rather narrow focus.

"They wanted to get into the nuts and bolts of the Soviet Union. They never saw themselves as having anything particular to say about broad Soviet strategic trends.''

Instead, the JIB became primarily a "collector of bits and bobs of intelligence,'' taking on assignments no one else was available to do.

The bureau later moved to External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs), but Wark notes its legacy can be seen in the work of today's Intelligence Assessment Secretariat, a division of the Privy Council Office.

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