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Bringing the spies in from the cold: PR lessons for spooks

csec-crest-largeBy Francis Moran

Almost 20 years ago, I worked on a marketing and communications strategy for Communications Security Establishment Canada, the Department of National Defence surveillance agency that leapt into the headlines this week for allegedly snooping on a Brazilian government ministry. At that time — and probably still today — CSEC had two main functions, the signals intelligence, or SIGINT, stuff that is getting all the attention this week, and communications security, or COMSEC, which was responsible for making sure that the telephones and other communications equipment used by the prime minister and other high-ranking government officials was secure. It was the COMSEC side of the house that hired us because it was considering marketing its expertise to banks and other sectors in Canada that could benefit from the espionage-grade hardware, software and know-how it had available.

I believe it was the first time CSEC had contemplated lifting so publicly the veil that had shrouded its existence since its formation at the onset of the Cold War and that had earned it the moniker of “Canada’s super-secret spy agency.” To say it was a fascinating assignment is an understatement. In that pre-911 world, CSEC’s main headquarters across from Canada Post on Heron was a fortress. In a day when people could still drive their cars onto and around Parliament Hill and walk into the House of Commons public galleries without any security checks, it took 15 or 20 minutes to be processed through the security gate at the periphery of the compound. Once inside, red lights would be flashing everywhere to warn those working there that uncleared personnel were on the premises. I vividly recall that filing cabinets had huge red or green panels on them to indicate at a single glance whether they were still open — forbidden so long as we were in the house — or safely locked down.

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