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.
Although his house was a stone’s throw away, we were miles apart. I knew absolutely nothing about the guy and his wife [both in their 40s] — not even their first names, where they worked … or their thoughts on the price of tea in China.
But I suspect he knew lots about me.
And that’s exactly what the 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 out back and my neighbour, whose back yard faced mine, was on his deck, some 50 feet away. For a brief moment, our eyes locked … then, suddenly, the man took off like a bat out of hell.
Zip, right into the house. Without a nod or a smile, the door slammed shut behind him.
My goodness. What was that about?
A few months later, I saw my neighbour on his deck again, only this time he was sitting in a chair up against the side of the house, chatting on a cordless phone. And guess what? The same thing happened! … he glanced my way and bolted!
This was beyond weird. What the hell was going on? Now, I was really curious.
Other than having sudden diarrhea, the only explanation for his odd behaviour was that the fellow was in a witness protection program and he was warned that he was living right next door to a news reporter.
Hmmm … could it have been that? I had no idea.
I then talked things over with Fred Lennarson, a respected advisor with the Lubicon Cree of Northern Alberta.
The Chicago native — a trained social scientist — didn’t think for one moment that ‘buddy’ was in any witness protection program. When I described how the man reacted, Lennarson quickly announced, “That has to be a surveillance house!”
“What??? …” I said. “Are you serious?? … who would they be spying on?”
This is a story about spy houses and the people working in them who want to know everything about us.
“I saw your story on Talisman Energy,” Lennarson explained, “… that’s precisely why the 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 obeying the law and doing their job would be spied on by their own government? Like, how crazy is that?
I shook my head from side to side. Lennarson picked up on my disbelief and threw out a challenge. “Don’t believe me?” he said. “Okay, tell you what … send 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 just that. That’s when shit hit the fan.
The Talisman Controversy
It was the 1990s and Talisman Energy, an oil and gas company based in Calgary, was operating in Sudan, a Third World country in Northern Africa run by a ruthless government.
There, a bloody civil war was underway between the north and the south — and the Canadian energy company was in the thick of it.
Talisman was providing hefty oil royalties to the government in Khartoum, which — according to foreign aid organizations and church groups — was using the money to buy helicopter gunships and pay for death squads.
The North had the money and the muscle, the South had the oil and wanted their own country. There’s a recipe for a revolution if there ever was one.
Click on this link to read the article Lennarson referred to … http://rabble.ca/news/civil-suit-civil-war.
Libel Chill and More
The item in rabble.ca — at the time a fledgling Toronto-based online news organization — 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 Canada] in a bad light.
Libel chill is a real concern because lawyers are expensive. Anybody can sue anyone — over anything. 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 rebel leaders in South Sudan. I’d gotten in touch with her as I was unable to have direct contact with her husband who was busy fighting a guerrilla war.
We talked for perhaps an hour about her husband’s position on the foreign oil workers in the region.
The lady phoned back within a couple of days to say that her computer had somehow 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 friend who worked at the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]. 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. 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 difficult it was for reporters to cover the Talisman-Sudan story.
Check it out. Click to enlarge.
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. Click to enlarge.
“My Spy Buddy”
The agent Lennarson referred to was Mike Frost, a retired spy with the Communication Security Establishment. The CSE is a Canadian intelligence agency that monitors our phone calls and emails.
The CSE specializes in communication matters plus a discipline known as ‘signals intelligence.’ All clandestine stuff.
There are a number of spy agencies in Canada. The CSE [the largest, but one of the least known] operates out of a building in Ottawa known as the “Barn.” You can’t park near the place.
The Communication Security Establishment is a mini version of the powerful U.S. electronic spy outfit, the NSA.
It was agent Frost who helped set up Canada’s spy operation in Moscow in the 1970s. All his intel, he claims, was promptly handed over to Washington. You’re surprised, right? Poor Canada, the errand boy.
In the early 1990s, Mike Frost left CSE and wrote 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 them.
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 some threat to national security. When one considers that children and 80-year-old grandparents are included in the stat, it’s truly amazing.
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, CHED was the runaway leader.
Why talk to a retired spy such as Frost? Because the public has a right to know how its money is being spent. In a word, we’re talking about accountability.
Frost had been interviewed extensively by reporters, including some who worked for the major American TV networks. He once shared 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 Mike Frost’s grievance regarding the CSE was that it was a sleazy 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], he said, it was no accident. Here’s how Mike Frost put it: if his body was discovered in his car in the Rideau Canal, it was neither a 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 and I then talked about the email. The reason for it, he said, was that he had just received a phone call from a man whose voice he recognized as a former co-worker at CSE. The caller warned him, “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 wasn’t liked at the Communication Security Establishment. After reading his book, I could understand that. The man was a big-time whistle-blower.
Not long after the death 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.
Mike Frost Informed About the Surveillance House
After the chat with Fred Lennarson, I whipped off an urgent email of my own to Mike 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 in the fall to go through the manuscript for his new book. He asked if I could edit it, and I said sure. But Frost 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 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 kitty-corner to mine. I informed Frost 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 the email to see if Frost’s communication was monitored.
It sure as hell was. Lennarson was right.
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 water the plants. When the woman noticed me, she didn’t flee as hubby had. But she did something I hadn’t seen her do previous: she ducked her head so I couldn’t see her face and she sprinted across the deck.
And you thought the Kardashians were weird.
That same day, Mike Frost’s doorbell rang … he opened the door and there stood an official with CSIS, Canada’s best-known intelligence agency. The stranger ordered Frost to immediately end his relationship with reporter Byron Christopher.
Frost then fired off an urgent email my way, saying we could no longer communicate. And just like that, our relationship vanished. Poof. Given the tone of Frost’s communication, it was probably written for the benefit of CSIS.
The very next day, a large moving truck pulled up to the ‘spy house.’ I watched as workers removed furniture and other belongings from the residence.
“Busted,” I thought.
Thank you, Fred Lennarson. I phoned him with news that the surveillance house was emptied — and to apologize. He laughed and remarked, “Nice country we live in.”
It took two days to empty the house. Two weeks later, a ‘For Sale’ sign suddenly appeared on the front lawn.
Well, I was happy to see them go. It wasn’t only because of the surveillance. Their two cats always crapped in my garden.
Another Get-Together With Lennarson
Lennarson and I met at a noisy neighbourhood pub to talk about news events and old times. He was soon on the move as well.
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 its 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.”
The social scientist 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’s wrong.
A Face-to-Face Meeting with Agent Frost
A few years ago, I finally got to meet Mike Frost in person. I was in New Brunswick visiting relatives and friends and I decided to drop around [unannounced] to the last address I had for him.
I will not divulge the man’s address.
The man was not at home. However, his garage door was wide open which suggested he was close by. I got back in my rental and headed out of town — but not before leaving a hand-written message in his mailbox. Keep in mind that, Frost and I were not supposed to be in touch.
An hour later, I was in a restaurant in another town when my cell phone went off. It was Mike 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?”
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 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 here.
I recognized Frost’s voice immediately and he must have recognized mine … but he said nothing. Not “Good morning” … nothing. It was like two strangers in Toronto or New York buying coffee.
Frost walked away with his drink. There was no need to turn around and see where he was sitting. Frost would have his back to the window so he could keep an eye on both doors. 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 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 interjected. I said, “Shit, they had you scared, you shut down completely. I would’ve told them to fuck off.”
Frost and I talked a lot about reporting and the spy business … why he became a spy [“for King and Country”], 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 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 that was broken by the Edmonton Journal: The U.S. military was testing a new high-tech weapon — the cruise missile — in Alberta.
The story was ‘hot’ and our national news desk in Toronto wanted as much information on it as we could get.
The unarmed 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 laser-guided missiles. Perhaps the Soviet embassy in Ottawa had some intel on the mysterious weapons. I spoke with Alexander [Aleksandr] Podakin, Press Attache at the Russian Embassy and asked if he had information on the cruise missiles. He said he did.
The diplomat then mailed our newsroom several 8×10″ sharp, colour photographs of the cruise missiles. I didn’t ask how Podakin got his hands on them.
Turns out, the pictures were accurate. The missiles in the photos 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. There were these beautiful, large 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 eventually vanished. I don’t know who took them.
Alexander Podakin came to Edmonton on official business and phoned from the Westin Hotel downtown. I hopped on my motorbike and dropped by to meet him.
We decided to do lunch. We walked to a yuppy-type, dimly-lit restaurant nearby, close to his posh hotel where we found a table for two.
Podakin immediately asked that we switch seats. He wanted to see who was entering the restaurant. The Russian felt he was being followed.
The diplomat spoke at length about his homeland [Ukraine] and how — for five years— he had studied the Canadian news media. The guy knew way more about the owners of our major media than I.
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 he 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 the street, “we [Russian embassy staff] are always being followed.” I shot back, “So how’s that any different from what happens to Canadian embassy staff in Moscow?”
He shared that he was restricted to travelling within 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 officer what 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.”
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 was born and raised 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 — legendary coach of a dominant Soviet hockey team that won 8 world championships and 3 Olympic gold medals.
CBC Sports in Toronto wanted to score an exclusive 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 interview was a go.
I met Tikhonov in his hotel room close to the Alberta Legislature in downtown Edmonton. In front of Tikhonov were three small TV monitors; he was watching VHS tapes of games.
On television, Tikhonov came across as a dictatorial coach, shouting at the officials — and sometimes at his own players. In person, well he was somewhat the same … stern. He removed his glasses and answered all my questions — with the help of a Russian translator, a sports reporter with state-operated 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.
Before Alexander Podakin left Canada, in the mid 1980s, he was interviewed on the CBC’s Fifth Estate, giving the Russian version of how a terrible famine in the Ukraine in 1932 claimed millions of lives. The West claimed the disaster was man-made.
Podakin returned to Moscow to work for Novosti. I 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. The man may be dead.
I recently wrote to a major news outlet in Moscow about Podakin but haven’t heard back. The silence suggests it may be another email that ends up in ‘File 13.’ Delete.
Decked Again – 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 give him a call.
Mr. Ambassador had some bad news: my visa to enter the USSR had been revoked. I was not to try to enter the country. I could get as far as the Russian border — 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 were just following orders.
I’d been decked again — but this time by someone in the Russian intelligence community in Moscow.
Does 1986 ring a bell? On April 26th of that year, an explosion ripped through a nuclear-power plant at a place called 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 supposed 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 be able to sneak out of Kiev and make my way up to Chernobyl. I shared these plans with CBC co-worker Anna Maria Tremonti, who went ballistic. She pleaded with me to cancel my Russian trip, fearing I would 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. 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 a bit familiar with the language … and I knew people there.
I also got to hang out for a while with friends in Germany.
So, in spite of the 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 a lot of help with the writing 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.
Wait. There’s More …
It’s not quite cloak and dagger — just underhanded — but it’s worth noting that between 2000 and 2005, Edmonton City Police were looking for dirt on me. But the way they did it was wrong, and — thank God — they too were busted.
Mind you, this all happened when my next-door neighbour was running for the hills whenever I spotted him. Related? Don’t know.
Edmonton Police had hoped to find damaging stuff on me by sifting through a sensitive police database, the Canadian Police Information Centre [CPIC]. The general public does not have access to CPIC files, only law enforcement-types.
The officers wanted to see if I’d been convicted of a criminal offence. Turns out, I had not … hadn’t even been charged. A CPIC check on Byron Christopher turned up nothing exciting or sexy … perhaps a few speeding and parking tickets, but that was it.
When it comes to criminal activity, I’ve lived a boring life.
Here’s a March 9, 2006 story in the Edmonton Sun by Max Maudie on those police searches. Click to enlarge.
Was there a ‘connect’ between the surveillance house and illicit police snooping? I have no idea. Your guess is as good as mine.
One Edmonton policeman had his knuckles rapped for the unlawful searches, but that was it. The two officers questioned had “memory losses.”
More details are here in a November 2, 2006 Edmonton Sun story by Brookes Merritt. Click to enlarge.
Tips About Spies & Surveillance
Some of the following may be old-news to you … but it’s still worth a read.
#1: A landline telephone is a LIVE microphone, even if the phone is hung up.Police and spooks can hear everything in a room that has 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 spy 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 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 at NSA headquarters.
#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 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 brother of the head of CSIS was head of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
The Surveillance House Today