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NOW Magazine
Thursday, January 18, 2001
vol 20, no 20

Hidden Ears

Experts fear new U.S. Embassy in Ottawa packed with spy equipment

by Alex Roslin

OTTAWA -- Bill Clinton was in a jovial mood as he dedicated the new U.S. embassy in Ottawa. "Jean says I must learn to speak French", said the president as the prime minister looked on. "So let me say, je suis chez moi au Canada -- I am at home in Canada."

Little did the crowd gathered that brisk October day in 1999 realize how right Clinton was. Intelligence experts believe that high above the heads of the onlookers, the Americans were making themselves right at home, installing a battery of satellite dishes and antennae within the embassy's roof to pry into Canadians' phone calls, e-mail, satellite communications, and even state secrets.

If these surveillance mavens are right, such spy equipment would be a massive violation of Canadians' privacy and would violate an agreement between the U.S. and Canada not to spy on each other's government communications.

"Everybody's a target to the Americans. It's like a giant vacuum cleaner. They like to suck everything in", says Fred Stock, a former officer in Canada's ultra-secretive Communications Security Establishment, which spies on phone calls, faxes, the Internet, and satellite communications, sometimes from overseas embassies, experts claim.

"Ottawa is a pretty big spying area. There are a lot more reasons for them to be spying in Ottawa than people realize", says Stock, who spent six years at CSE and, prior to that, nine years in the Canadian Forces communications research section.

Mike Frost, a 25-year retired veteran of the CSE, sees many reasons to be suspicious of the new U.S. facility. "I watched them with great interest as they put it up", says Frost, who lives in Ottawa. "They were doing all the things they taught me to do."

Frost literally wrote the book on the collection of signals intelligence, or SIGINT in spy lingo, at Canadian and U.S. embassies. He told his story to journalist Michel Gratton in the sensational 1994 book Spyworld, exposing for the first time how the CSE spies on Canadian citizens and foreign countries.

Frost also described how the U.S. National Security Agency, America's equivalent of the CSE, trained him to help Canada set up its first embassy SIGINT program.

This training is what got Frost and some of his CSE colleagues wondering about the strange structures atop the old U.S. embassy then on Wellington Street in Ottawa. His book featured photos of odd-looking air vents and heat pumps on the roof that resembled standard NSA structures used to conceal spying equipment.

Frost has no doubt that the new U.S. embassy has similar equipment, but updated and more powerful than ever: "I'd lay my balls on the line it's there."

By most accounts, the new four-storey embassy at 490 Sussex Drive is a bizarre-looking structure. The $55-million fortress is said to be capable of withstanding anything short of a nuclear strike and has been called Stalinesque and "the Kremlin's ugly cousin".

Especially curious is an ungainly, windowless three-storey dome on the roof. "Holy smokes, it looks like something out of science fiction", exclaims one CSE officer who requested anonymity. "One does wonder why there would be add-ons to the roof."

The architectural plans are classified, and an embassy official was tight-lipped about the dome and "security issues".

According to New York architect Gary Haney, who co-designed the embassy, the dome is actually a skylight that floods light into an interior atrium --- an explanation that couldn't be verified because the atrium is off-limits to the public.

Haney says there are no satellite dishes or antennae on top of the roof, but he did note that there is a well recessed into the roof that contains a satellite dish and other "communications equipment". The well is 7 to 8 feet deep and 10-by-15 feet across.

In the past, such equipment would have been placed on top of the roof, says Haney, but miniaturization and other advances in technology allow it to be concealed better. "Technology is so miniaturized right now that it doesn't affect the roof design. It's very easy now to tuck it behind a screen."

The well is big enough for an array of SIGINT equipment, says Frost. He also points to the dome, with its commanding view of downtown Ottawa, as a certain location for additional spying equipment like antennae.

What kind of traffic could all these gadgets pick up? Basically, anything. SIGINT captures airborne transmissions, but these days that includes more than cellphone calls and satellite communications. That's because when land lines become congested, phone calls, faxes, and e-mail are often automatically rerouted to microwave towers or satellites, thus making them susceptible to interception, says Frost.

Stock, the ex-CSE officer, says federal officials are aware of the U.S. embassy spying but pretend not to be and are therefore not adequately securing government communications. He says he is "100 per cent certain" that the embassy is used to collect signals intelligence, and calls the spying an attack on Canadians' privacy and sovereignty. "It's eroding our human rights."

Stock and Frost say Ottawa offers a veritable buffet of SIGINT targets: foreign embassies, companies, and organizations, high-tech firms, business deals, trade negotiations, not to mention traffic of the Canadian government and citizens.

"Ottawa is festering with activity", says Frost. "America spies on everybody, even its own people. Of course, they would want to spy on us."

"I'd be surprised if they didn't have a satellite dish somewhere in Ottawa", agrees McMaster computer scientist David Jones, president of the privacy watchdog Electronic Frontier Canada. "Of course, there are U.S. spies in Ottawa. If there aren't, somebody isn't doing their job. As a Canadian, I'd be insulted. What are we, chopped liver?"

Foreign affairs department spokesperson Franĉois Lasalle declines to comment, saying, "We certainly don't comment on rumours."

York University political scientist Reg Whitaker, who studies intelligence, said he'd be surprised if the new U.S. embassy doesn't have a SIGINT collection capability: "I'd find it doubtful that they would leave it off. There would be minimum standards (in the embassy's design). If they're going to go to the trouble to build a new structure, why wouldn't they put something in?"


Copyright © 2001 by Now Magazine. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.