The man I’m writing about lived in my neighbourhood in the West end of Edmonton, Alberta. We were close, geographically speaking; only a tall wooden fence separated our properties.
We were miles apart, however …
I knew nothing about the man and his wife — both in their 40s, I figured. Didn’t know their first names, where they worked or their thoughts on the price of tea in China.
But I suspect the chap knew a LOT about me.
And that’s just what our Government wanted.
This story goes back a few years …
On a bright sunny day in 2003, the strangest thing happened: I was standing on my deck and my neighbour, whose back yard faced mine, was on his deck, some 40 feet away.
For a brief moment, our eyes locked — then suddenly — the man took off like a bat out of hell. Zip, right into his house. Without a nod or a smile, he slammed the door shut behind him.
My goodness. What was that about??
A few months later, I spotted him on his deck again — only this time he was on a chair, leaning back and chatting on a cordless phone. And guess what? He glanced my way and bolted! Déjà vu all over again.
What the hell was going on here? Now, I was really curious.
Other than having a sudden attack of diarrhea, one possible explanation for the man’s odd behaviour was that he was in a witness protection program. Perhaps he’d been warned he was living right next door to a news reporter, so better keep a low profile.
Hmmm … could that be it? I had no clue.
I was puzzled by this and I tried hard to make sense of it. And so I talked things over with Fred Lennarson, an advisor with the Lubicon Cree of Northern Alberta.
I had respect for Lennarson, a Chicago native and a trained social scientist.
Not for a moment did Lennarson think that ‘buddy’ was in a ‘witness protection program.’ No way. When I described how my neighbour had reacted, Lennarson quickly announced, “That’s a surveillance house!”
“What??? …” I said. “Are you serious?? … who would they be spying on?”
- Red Flags
- An Explanation
- Background: The Talisman Controversy
- Libel Chill … and More
- Media Coverage
- “My Spy Buddy”
- Agent Frost Informed About the Suspicious House
- Another Get-Together with Lennarson
- Finally. A Face-to-Face Meeting with Frost
- More Cloak and Dagger Stuff
- Decked Again – Russian Visa Revoked
- A Good Trip Anyway
- Tips About Spies and Surveillance
- The House Today
“I saw your story on Talisman Energy,” Lennarson explained, “… that’s precisely why the Canadian government would keep an eye on you. You’re trouble.”
I was stunned. I didn’t buy into what Lennarson was saying because it seemed so far-fetched. A spy house on a little-known reporter?
How could it be that someone who is obeying the law and doing their job would be under surveillance — by their own government? Like, how crazy is that … government-funded stalkers?
I shook my head. Lennarson picked up on my disbelief and threw out a challenge. “Don’t believe me?” he asked. “Okay, tell you what … fire off an email to your ‘spy buddy’ in the Maritimes, tell him what you saw — and that your next-door neighbour is spying on you from a SURVEILLANCE HOUSE.”
“See what happens …”
Well, I did that.
And that’s when the shit hit the fan.
Background: The Talisman Controversy
It was the 1990s and Talisman Energy, a Calgary oil and gas company, was operating in Sudan, a poor north African country run by a ruthless government.
There, a bloody civil war was underway between the [dominant] North and the [rebellious] South — and the Canadian firm was in the thick of it.
Talisman provided hefty oil royalties to the government in Khartoum, which — according to a number of foreign aid organizations and church groups — was using the cash to buy helicopter gunships … and to fund death squads.
The North had the money and the muscle, the South had the oil and wanted its own country. There’s a recipe for a revolution if there ever was one.
Click on this link to read the story Lennarson referred to … http://rabble.ca/news/civil-suit-civil-war.
Libel Chill … and More
The article in rabble.ca — at the time, a fledgling online news organization in downtown Toronto — had been vetted by three lawyers; two in Alberta, one in Ontario. Such was rabble’s fear of publishing stories that put Canadian energy companies [and our country] in a bad light.
Funding death squads that nail spikes through the heads of opponents? Try putting a positive spin on that.
Libel chill is a real concern because a] lawyers are expensive and b] you may lose the case. I can’t speak for most countries but in North America, anybody can sue anyone — over anything. The courts accept all lawsuits, legit or frivolous. Not until years have passed will a judge determine if a lawsuit has merit.
The media had libel chills and a Sudanese woman living in exile in the US had chills period, and it wasn’t because of her Minnesota winters. She was the wife of one of the two rebel leaders in South Sudan. I’d gotten in touch with her as I was unable to connect with her husband who was busy fighting a guerrilla war.
We talked about her husband’s position on the issue of foreign oil companies and their staff in South Sudan. If the rebels gained power, would these workers be held for ransom? Would they be executed?
The woman phoned back within a day or two — and she was some pissed. Somehow, her computer had been wiped clean, and she hadn’t done a thing to it. She felt that whatever happened was because of our interview.
I believe it was.
The woman then got in touch with a contact who worked at the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] in the U.S. He thought the computer hack was the work of either the US National Security Agency [NSA] or its Canadian counterpart, the Communication Security Establishment [CSE].
There you go. My first known experience with an electronic spy organization.
The spring 2004 edition of the Ryerson Review of Journalism, a glossy magazine in Toronto, featured an article about how difficult it was for reporters to cover the Talisman-Sudan story.
Check it out. There’s no need to squint, just click on the article to enlarge it.
Calgary-based Alberta Views also did a write-up about Talisman and Sudan and how the media was handling it.
A reference to my work is highlighted with a yellow border. Again, click to enlarge.
“My Spy Buddy”
The agent Lennarson referred to was Mike Frost, a retired spy with the Communication Security Establishment.
Canada has a number of spy agencies. The largest — but one of the least known — is the CSE which operates out of a complex in Ottawa known as the “Barn.” You can’t park near that place.
The agency monitors our phone calls and emails. The CSE specializes in communication matters … plus a discipline known as ‘signals intelligence.’ All clandestine stuff.
The CSE is a mini version of the powerful US electronic spy organization, NSA.
It was agent Frost who helped set up Canada’s spy operation in Moscow in the 1970s. All his intel, he tells me, was promptly handed over to Washington. You’re surprised, right? Oh Canada, the errand boy.
In the early 1990s, Mike Frost parted ways with CSE and authored a best-selling book, Spy World. The tell-all hardcover detailed how his taxpayer-funded employer freely spied on Canadians — all the time.
Search warrants? Never heard of ’em.
You’ll find Frost’s book on Amazon. https://www.amazon.ca/SPYWORLD-Mike-Frost/dp/0385254946
According to Parliamentary records, the Communication Security Establishment has files on one in four Canadians. Let that sink in.
It’s hard to believe that every fourth person in Canada is a terrorist, drug dealer or a threat to national security. When one considers that children and 80-year-old grandparents are included in the stat, it’s truly amazing. And you thought the little old lady down the street was a gossiper?
Mike Frost lived in Ottawa. I interviewed him by phone when I worked as a reporter for 630 CHED Radio in Edmonton. At the time, CHED billed itself as “Alberta’s Information Superstation.” When it came to radio journalism in Western Canada, we were the runaway leader.
Why talk to a veteran spy? Because the public has a right to know how its money is being spent. In a word, accountability.
Mike Frost had been interviewed extensively by reporters, including some who worked for the major American television networks. He once shared with me that he held the ‘Canadian record’ for most interviews  on CBS’s investigative flagship program, 60 Minutes.
Courtesy of YouTube, here’s a short video featuring Mike Frost in an NBC feature on the extent of electronic spying by the US and Canadian governments … https://youtu.be/WIFIH12JHIc.
The piece was done by award-winning reporter Ike Seamans.
The gist of Frost’s grievance regarding the CSE was that it was a sleaze operation … and that Canadian taxpayers were paying through the nose for snooping that was not only dirty but unlawful.
One morning, I received a high priority email from the retired spy with a frosty message: if anything tragic ever happened to him [ie a sudden, unexpected death], it was no accident. Here’s how Frost put it: if his body was discovered in his car at the bottom of the Rideau Canal, it was not suicide nor an accident.
He asked that I keep a record of his email and that I do a story on it if he suddenly perished. I said, “Sure thing.”
Frost had made the dire prediction — not to give me a story — but to give himself some protection.
We then talked about his email. The reason for it, he said, was that he’d just received a phone call from a man whose voice he recognized as a former co-worker at CSE. The caller warned, “You’re going to have an accident, Mike … you’re going to have an accident.” Click. End of call.
Mike Frost was well aware he was not liked at the Communication Security Establishment. After reading his book, I understood. He was a big-time whistle-blower.
It was time for agent Frost to get out of Dodge.
Not long after the threat, Mike Frost and his wife were on the move to another part of the country. They packed their bags and pulled out of the nation’s capital to live a quiet life in New Brunswick.
He later called to give me his new address.
Agent Frost Informed About the Suspicious House
After my chat with Fred Lennarson, I whipped off an urgent email of my own to agent Frost.
Lennarson had pointed out — rightfully so — that the CSE would certainly monitor Frost’s emails and phone calls.
Mike Frost and I had planned to meet that fall to go through the manuscript for his new book. He asked if I could edit it, and I said sure. But Frost only wanted to do this in person, not on the phone or by email. I recall him saying that the safest way for us to communicate was to be talking in the middle of a field “on a windy day.”
Frost’s previous book had been edited by Michel Gratton, former Parliamentary reporter — and, later, press secretary to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
I told Frost that I looked forward to meeting him — and was wondering if he could possibly identify an agent working in a surveillance house that was kitty-corner to mine. I advised that I had a photo of the suspect which I would show him when we met. Perhaps he knew the guy.
In fact, I had NO such photo, although I now wish I had. I planted the misinformation in my email to see if Frost’s communication was monitored.
It sure as hell was. Lennarson was right again.
The day after I sent the email, the wife of my mysterious neighbour appeared on her deck holding a watering can. She was about to tend to her plants. When she noticed me, she didn’t flee [like hubby had]. However, she did something I hadn’t seen her do before: bend her head down so I couldn’t see her face as she sprinted across the deck.
And I thought the Kardashians were weird.
That same day, Mike Frost’s doorbell rang … he opened the door and there stood a man from CSIS, Canada’s best-known spy agency. The stranger ordered Frost to immediately end his relationship with reporter Byron Christopher.
Frost then fired an urgent email my way, saying we could no longer communicate. So much for the editing assignment. And just like that, what I thought was a good relationship just vanished. Poof.
Given the sharp tone of Frost’s email, it was probably written for both my benefit and CSIS’.
The very next day, a large moving truck pulled up to the ‘spy house.’ I watched as workers removed furniture and other belongings.
“Busted,” I thought.
Thank you, Fred Lennarson. I phoned Fred with news that the suspicious residence was emptied — and to apologize. He laughed and the way he tells it, “Nice country we live in.”
It took two days to empty the house. Two weeks after that, a ‘For Sale’ sign appeared on the front lawn. ‘For Sale’ signs normally appear before people move out, or right after.
Well, I was happy to see them go … and it wasn’t just because of the suspected surveillance. Their two cats had been shitting in my garden.
Another Get-Together With Lennarson
Lennarson and I met at a noisy neighbourhood pub to talk about current events and old times. He was soon on the move as well and he wanted to say good-bye.
I reminded him that somebody had gone to the expense of running a bloody surveillance house in my neighbourhood. Lennarson took a sip of cold beer, studied me for a good 10 seconds, then announced, “Byron, you still sound surprised …”
“Canada protects the status quo,” he explained, “and both the government and media know their place,” adding, with a shrug, “… and Canadians seem to be okay with that.”
He then joked: “How do you get a thousand Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, ‘please leave the swimming pool.'” According to Lennarson, Canadians are not only reluctant to speak out against injustices, many actually defend the system — even when they know it is wrong.
Finally. A Face-to-Face Meeting with Frost
A few years ago, I finally got to meet Mike Frost in person. I was in the Maritimes working and visiting family and friends and I decided to drop around — unannounced — to the last address I had for him. [I will not divulge that address.]
The agent was not at home. However, his garage door was wide open suggesting he was close by, perhaps out for a walk. I got back in my rental and headed out of town — but not before leaving a hand-written message sticking out of his mailbox.
Keep in mind that Frost had been ordered never to communicate with me again.
An hour later, I was in a restaurant in another town when my cell phone rang. Well. It was Agent Frost. “If anyone had bet me a million dollars that Byron Christopher would be at my door today,” he said, “I would have taken the bet! How are you doing?”
Frost said he had been out walking his dog when I dropped by. “A female dog,” I interjected. “Yeah. How did you know that?” “I saw a pink dog leash hanging by the door.” He laughed. I laughed. But we were faking it because we both knew that the spy business was toxic.
We agreed to meet in a few days at a Tim Hortons’ doughnut shop not far from his place. Very Canadian, I know. We set a time: 9:45 am. At 9:45 exactly I was standing at one of the two tills, putting in my order, when a stranger walked up to the till on my left and placed his order.
It was Mike Frost. With his neatly trimmed beard, good attire and composure, he looked very distinguished. Mr. Diplomat.
I recognized Frost’s voice and he must have recognized mine … but he said nothing. Not “Good morning” … nothing. It was like two strangers in a line-up in Toronto or New York.
Frost walked away with his drink. There was no need for me to turn around and see where he was sitting. The agent would have his back to the window so he could keep an eye on both doors. It’s an old spy thing.
I walked up to his table. “Agent Frost,” I said, “we finally meet.” The man smiled, stood up and shook my hand. “It’s an honour,” he said.
I wanted to know what went down the day Frost had sent the ‘dear-John’ email, and so he told me all about it. He explained that a CSIS agent had ordered him to ‘divorce’ his relationship with reporter Byron Christopher immediately. I said, “Divorce? Mike, I’m not even hitting on you …”
Well, I thought it was funny.
“We had them scared, Byron,” Frost pointed out. I said, “Shit, Mike, they had you scared, you shut down completely. I would’ve told them to fuck off.”
Frost and I talked a lot about news reporting and the spy business … why he became a spy [“for King and Country,” he said], his disappointment with CSE, a drinking problem that led to his demotion — and that he and his wife had decided ‘no more media interviews’ because they wanted to spend their retirement years in peace. Fair enough.
I found it interesting that much of Frost’s training was not done in Canada nor England but in the United States … at Fort Meade, Maryland — home of the NSA.I asked Frost, “How many people here in X-ville, NB know your past?” He replied, “Only one … my pastor.”
More Cloak and Dagger Stuff
In the 1980s, while working as a radio reporter with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] in Edmonton, I covered a story broken by the Edmonton Journal: The U.S. military was testing a new high-tech super weapon — the cruise missile — in Alberta.
The story was hot stuff and our national desk in Toronto wanted as much information on it as we could get.
The unarmed, laser-guided cruise missiles were being flown from a location in Northern Alberta to the Canadian Air Base at Cold Lake, in the eastern part of the province.
No one seemed to know much about the new weapons, their size or what they looked like … and so I put in a call to the military brass in Cold Lake. “Talk to the Americans,” they said. “Sorry, classified information, can’t help you,” the Americans said.
I decided to reach out to the Russians, since cities in the USSR were the intended target for the missiles. Perhaps the Soviet embassy in Ottawa had some intel on the mystery weapons.
I spoke with Alexander [Aleksandr] Podakin, Press Attache at the Russian Embassy and asked if he had information on the cruise missiles, perhaps photos of them. He said he did.
Podakin then mailed our newsroom several 8×10″ sharp, colour photographs of the cruise missile. I didn’t ask how he got them.
The pictures were real. The missiles were identical to the weapons launched by the Americans in their attacks on Iraq.
I remember the day I was in the newsroom and Podakin’s envelope arrived. Out popped these beautiful photos of the cruise missile. We weren’t quite sure what to do with them. I put the pictures in my trusty Samsonite attache case — which I never locked. The photos vanished. I don’t know who took them.
Alexander Podakin later came to Edmonton on official business. He phoned from the posh Westin Hotel downtown. I hopped on my motorbike and dropped around to see him.
We decided to do lunch. We walked to a yuppy-type, dimly-lit restaurant where we found a table for two.
Podakin immediately asked if we could switch seats. The Russian wanted to see who was entering the restaurant. He felt he was being followed.
We had a good chat. The diplomat spoke at length about his homeland [Ukraine] and that — for five years — he had studied the Canadian news media. The guy knew way more about the owners of our major media than I did. I was shocked at how much he knew.
About an hour into our get-together, Podakin suddenly became agitated. I said, “What’s up?” The Russian shot back, “It’s that man who followed us in … he’s sitting over there by the door.” I turned to see a guy, mid-30’s perhaps, plain clothes, eating alone at a table.
Podakin and I soon left the restaurant, but not before my guest walked over to the stranger and glared at him. It was tense. They were only about a metre apart and I thought they might go at it, but nothing happened. The man who had been slowly eating by himself for more than an hour looked totally embarrassed … but said not a word.
The CBC picked up the tab for our meal. I explained to our financial wizards that I was buttering up a news source.
“I hate that about your country,” Podakin snapped as we made our way across Jasper Avenue, “we [Russian embassy staff] are always being followed here.” I shot back, “So how’s that any different from what happens in Moscow?”
He shared that he was restricted to a 25-mile radius of Edmonton — but that the same conditions applied to foreign diplomats based in Moscow.
I then phoned a good contact at RCMP Headquarters in Edmonton [K Division], explaining to the Mountie what had just happened at the restaurant. I was fishing for information … but also hoping there were no hard feelings. I was told, “The officer was just doing his job.”
It’s funny he should say that. Because that’s the impression I got when I saw the man. He struck me as a decent sort who was caught up in a conflict that was none of his doing.
I saw Podakin once more, this time in Ottawa. Still 1980s. He picked me up at the airport in an embassy vehicle — a Chevrolet sedan, of all things. I said, “What’s with the American car … why not something posh like a Lada [a small Russian sedan]?” Podakin smiled but said nothing, weaving his way through traffic as though he had spent his whole life in the city.
Podakin worked out of the Soviet Press Office at the end of Stewart Street, I recall. It was in one of the rooms there where I recorded an interview with another Russian diplomat — for a CBC Radio feature on agriculture challenges in the Soviet Union.
I found the Russians to be up-front about their problems, which surprised me. I expected a lot of ducking and diving, but that didn’t happen.
Podakin was a great contact. I once asked for his help in getting an interview with Виктор Васильевич Тихонов — better known as Viktor Tikhonov — the legendary coach of a dominant Soviet hockey team that captured eight world championships and three Olympic gold medals.
CBC Sports in Toronto wanted to score an interview with Tikhonov, and so I pulled some strings to make it happen. The first string was attached to Podakin.
Podakin complained that he was “crossing a line” to get involved in a sports matter but he came through just the same. The exclusive interview was a go.
I met Tikhonov in his hotel room close to the Alberta Legislature in downtown Edmonton. In front of the coach were three small TV monitors. The man was watching VHS tapes of games. He hit pause, removed his glasses and stood up. We shook hands.
On television, Tikhonov came across as a dictatorial coach, shouting at the officials — sometimes at his own players. In person, well he was somewhat the same … stern. He answered all my questions — with the help of a Russian translator who was a sports reporter with state-run Novosti Press.
Tikhonov gave enlightening, straight-ahead answers … which CBC Sports loved. So did the Novosti reporter as he ran a story about the interview in his homeland.
One response from Tikhonov stands out after all these years. I wanted to know which was greater … the Canadian influence on their game, or Russian influence on our game. “We have influenced your style more than you have ours,” he said.
Before Alexander Podakin left Canada, in the mid 1980s, he was interviewed on the CBC’s Fifth Estate, giving the USSR version of how a terrible famine in the Ukraine in 1932 claimed millions of lives. The West claimed the disaster was man-made, genocide. Podakin denied that.
Podakin returned to Moscow to work for Novosti. I recently Googled his name … and the latest I could find on my old contact was that he was reporting for Moscow News. But that was in 1992 — a long time ago. I have no idea where Podakin is now. He’d be well into his 80s. He may not even be alive.
I recently sent an email to a major news outlet in Moscow about Alexander Podakin … but haven’t heard back. The silence suggests it may be another letter that ends up in ‘File 13.’
Decked Again – Russian Visa Revoked
If you thought I had an “in” with the Ruskies, think again.
Any connection I had with the USSR quickly vanished in early June 1986 when my Russian visa was yanked — within just days of flying out of Edmonton to visit three major cities … Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev.
It was at the Edmonton International Airport where I popped some quarters in a pay phone to return a surprise call our newsroom had gotten from the Russian Ambassador. The diplomat left an urgent message for me to call him.
Mr. Ambassador had some bad news: my visa to enter the USSR had been revoked. I could get as far as the Russian border, he said, but no further.
I was shocked and, of course, disappointed.
The ambassador — whose name escapes me now — spoke good English. He shared that it was the first time his embassy [in Ottawa] had issued a visa only to have it cancelled by Moscow. No explanation was given.
I suspected that embassy staff in Ottawa were just following orders.
I’d been decked again — but this time by someone in the Russian intelligence community in a country I wasn’t supposed to visit.
Does 1986 ring a bell? On April 26th of that year, an explosion ripped through a nuclear-power plant at Chernobyl, north of Kiev. Two workers died on the spot … but it’s believed that thousands more people were fatally exposed to radiation poisoning.
Kiev was to be one of my stops.
It didn’t take a social scientist to figure out why I was the only one of some 30 tour members to have their visa pulled.
Truth is, I was hoping to sneak out of Kiev and make my way up to Chernobyl. I shared these plans with CBC Radio co-worker Anna Maria Tremonti, who went ballistic. She pleaded with me to cancel my Russian trip, fearing I’d die because of the radiation fallout from Chernobyl.
I fired off a postcard to Podakin at Novosti, asking if he knew anything about my visa being revoked. I thought if anyone could relate to the goings-on of intelligence-gathering spy agencies, he could.
I never heard back.
A Good Trip Anyway
I got as far as Finland, which was still very nice. It was late spring, the weather there was beautiful … and I didn’t have much owing on my VISA card.
I had lived in Finland for nearly all of 1972, working at the large Wärtsilä shipbuilding yard in the old port city of Turku. While not fluent in Finnish, I was familiar with the language … and I still knew people there.
I also got to hang out for a while with friends in Germany.
So, in spite of the Russian visa being cancelled, the trip wasn’t a complete bust.
I wrote about my return to Finland in the Turun [Turku] Sanomat, which at the time had a circulation of about 300,000. The article was published on Tuesday, 9 October 1986. I had help with the translation from an English-speaking reporter at the paper.
The article focused on the changes I had noticed in the 14 years I was away from Finland … and that I missed the place. Don’t try to read it … none of it will make sense. Finnish is a difficult language.
Tips About Spies & Surveillance
Some of these take-aways may be old-news … but they’re a good reminder.
#1: A landline telephone is a LIVE microphone, even if the phone is hung up. Police and spooks can hear everything in a room where there is a landline phone. For that very reason, be aware of landline phones in your bedroom. Those intimate moments may not be so private.
#2: ALL emails in Canada are monitored. Certain words in an email will cause correspondence to be flagged and read by a clerk at CSE headquarters in Ottawa. Key words include cocaine, bomb, women’s rights, native rights, rally, demonstration, etc.
A professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton used to deliberately boobytrap his emails with fake key words just to mess with the CSE, such was his contempt for the organization.
#3: CSE agents do not get warrants to do their snooping.
#4: The Communication Security Establishment has files on 1 in 4 Canadians. I touched on this earlier.
#5: The Communication Security Establishment is part of a top-secret, 5-country intelligence-gathering organization called Echelon. The other members are: USA, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. These folk trade information like we used to trade comic books and sports cards. They spy on each other’s citizens.
#6: CSE agents receive some of their training at the massive NSA complex in Maryland, much of it underground. The NSA hires the best brains, according to Agent Frost who got some of his training there. He recalls how difficult it was to move from one part of the complex to another.
#7: Diplomatic staff smuggle material in so-called diplomatic bags, which cannot be opened by customs or excise inspectors.
#8: Spy agencies can determine — even from a distance — what you’re typing at your computer. They don’t have to install a small camera in your room, or to bug it. That’s the idea behind a surveillance house.
#9: According to Agent Frost, agents aren’t too worried about home ‘security systems.’ They are easily defeated.
#10: How insidious is the relationship between Big Industry and Big Government? According to Fred Lennarson, there was a time when the head of CSIS and the head of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers were brothers, giving a whole new meaning to all in the family.
The House Today
On a Lighter Note …