“Canadian Caper” by Richard Sale

Richard Sale headshot (2)
Back in the
1980s, I had a newsletter, The Courier,
Confidential Foreign Affairs

On December
8, 1981, the correspondent from Toronto, John Honderich filed what he thought
was a routine story. A document stamped “Confidential” and sent from the
Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC to Ottawa, saying that the U.S. was
cancelling a Canadian-U.S. deal involving Lockheed’s anti-submarine plane, the
“Aurora,” which had been in the works. Since so few military deals had been
pending between the U.S. and Canada, Canada appeared to have been singled out
for persecution by the Pentagon. Anyway, that was the slant that Honderich’s
decided that his story was to take. The story went out.

But then
Honderich got a call from a long-time source who told him that, “You have much
more here than you think.” The document that had been leaked, complete with
special numbers, security designations, route markings, was a U.S. electronic
intercept. It meant that the top U.S. code-breaking outfit, the NSA, had
cracked Canada’s unbreakable” code. It meant that America had been caught
reading it ally’s mail. But Honderich didn’t seem to know what he had.  When I talked to him, he said he had never
heard of the NSA. But he had started calling Canadian officials before any
publicity could harden them into silence. In reply to Honderich, the Canadian
Exterior Affairs Minister (the equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of State, said
that Canada’s computerized diplomatic code was “very nearly fool-proof and only
rarely does it not fit our purpose.”

A very
polite brush off.

I kept
talking to Honderich, while making calls to find out if NSA could break an
ally’s code.  I learned that Canada and
the United States truly have a “special relationship” (not the UK,) and there
existed more secret treaties and secret understanding between the US and Canada
than any other U.S. ally.

With encouragement
from me, Honderich kept pressing on with his calls, and odd things began to
happen. Lockheed called and asked him for a copy of the document. I called
around until I got a U.S. congressional source who said that they didn’t’
understand what the excitement over the story since the cable was “a routine
intercept.”  A ROUTINE INTERCEPT?? But
the source didn’t say more.  Honderich
had heard the same thing. By then Canadian officials were telling the reporter
that the document was “hand delivered” but behind the scenes the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police, in charge of such matters, and they were making inquiries of
Lockheed in Ottawa, a story I confirmed.

I soon was
talking to a senior CIA source. “The fact is that we’ve been doing it for
years,” he said. As early as World War II, the U.S. was able to break
“significant number almost all,” of its allies' codes, including France, Canada
and Britain, plus the codes of every important exile group. Some of the
intercepts are in an office in Washington, (he told me which one,) and can be viewed if proper arrangements were

officials I talked to said that their code is “changed every day, and that is a
binary code with “an infinite number of random numerical variations,” and
therefore was “foolproof.” The machine was made by Control Data Corp of
Minneapolis, and it was manufactured jointly by Swiss-American companies.  You could sense the picture that was
forming.  How many people were reading
cables marked “Confidential?”

I was told
by the agency fellow that the NSA “collects less intelligence than the CIA but
it is of a “higher grade.” This clearly was a colossal misstatement, but I
didn’t know better at the time. I was told that the chief customers are DOD,
the Department of State, and the CIA. He was told there was a NSA “Black Book,”
which contains crucial NSA intercepts which are placed on the President’s desk
each morning by his military aide.  (So
much for the gibberish that claims that President Obama didn’t know we were
spying in Germany. We spy on them, but they also spy on us.)

I continued
to plod, making more calls. I knew that in July of 1980, as President Carter
was secretly massing U.S. forces for an October invasion of Iran to free the
hostages (we were going to drop the 82nd Airborne on Teheran’s
airport,), the Soviets were aware of the build up on their northern border, and
the NSA was aware that the Soviets knew of U.S. preparations because of recent
intercepts of their intercepts.  I was
working on the story of the Carter invasion not realizing that Jack Anderson
was also working on it, and he published first, a narrow political piece. I
kept working on my broader story which included accounts of helicopter
operations in the Middle West, when I got a call asking me to delay publication
of the story since the intercepts were considered so sensitive.

Other NSA
achievements were equally impressive. Thanks to Americans who defected to
Moscow, we came to know that 40 countries whose codes had been cracked
including Turkey, Yugoslavia, Canada and France among others. AT the time of
the Suez crisis of 1956, the NSA had broken the codes of Britain, France and
Israel and so had prior knowledge of their invasion plans. The codes were
cracked by the United States Air Force Research and Development Command at
Griffis Air Force Base, Rome, NY.

At the time,
in February 1982, I wrote, “Two questions remain. How did the U.S. break the
codes? One expert suggested that Canada’s system, built in America, had a “trap
door” – a secret route of access built in it by the manufacturer and by which
the code be read.  Another source said
that any computer that uses micro chips produces a certain amount of radiation.
When the chips are used repeatedly – redundancies – the patterns of the
language which enable us to understand it – begin to produce a pattern and the
NSA can fix on the repeated radiation levels and gain access to the code.
That’s one theory.

“The other
theory was this. The intercept leaked to the Toronto Star was a low level
Embassy routine cable , prompting the questions, was the leak a warning to
Ottawa that if America can do this, then the Soviet Union, which was able to
break the code in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, had probably done the same
thing.  Canada’s communications were no
longer secret. I was about to publish my story when the Canadian Mounted Police
acknowledged that they had made inquiries of Lockheed, and a Canadian official
acknowledged that the Toronto Star document was indeed  an electronic intercept and that there had
been others.

State Department official derided my efforts.”You had a non-story.” He sniffed.
He was wrong. Not only was it not a non-story, it would soon burst in the new
with a very big bang.”

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4 Responses to “Canadian Caper” by Richard Sale

  1. The Twisted Genius says:

    Good story. It certainly illustrates what Colonel Lang is telling us about how the world works. I’d like to add an incident that occurred in 1982. At that time Flintlock was an exercise in which 10th Special Forces Group and other allied units would conduct a two month long UW field exercise throughout Europe. The SFOB (Special Forces Operating Base) was set up at an abandoned RAF base in East Anglia. The SFOB communicated with the deployed teams through HF morse code radio messages encrypted with one time pads and sent in 300 group per minute bursts. One night the SFOB received an odd message on the emergency frequency. After some research, it was discovered to be a message from the previous year’s Flintlock exercise with an additional message inserted inside the original message. It seems the Soviets were recording our radio traffic and decided to send a message of their own.

  2. Medicine Man says:

    Thank you for sharing, Mr. Sale. This is a very interesting story, especially for a Canadian like myself.
    Now that I think about it, I should also probably thank Col. Lang for cutting through a lot of the disingenuous public melodrama that has been flying around regarding this recent spying “scandal”. I’ve never seen so many public officials claiming to be ignorant of something that is so pervasive.

  3. TTG, It’s not entirely clear, but my reading of your story is that the Soviets intercepted the original burst transmission and then, later, resent (via alternate means) the transmission’s encrypted text with a plain-text message of their own attached or imbedded. In other words, you’re not saying that the Soviets somehow did the impossible and deciphered one-time-pad encryption — are you?

  4. The Twisted Genius says:

    No, I would remember if they deciphered one time pad encryption. That would have been truly frightening. My memory is that the Russkies were just screwing with us.

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