Neil Macdonald: Remembering Archie Barr, Canada’s honourable spy

About The Author
Neil Macdonald is the senior Washington correspondent for CBC News, which he joined in 1988 following 12 years in newspapers. Before taking up this post in 2003, Macdonald reported from the Middle East for five years.


Many years ago, I was a young reporter working on what appeared to be a bombshell tip. I placed a call to a man named Archie Barr. I’d been told that Robert Coates, Brian Mulroney’s new defence minister, had compromised himself, and a briefcase containing national secrets, somewhere in Europe. Apparently hookers were involved. We had further been told that some top-secret government agency was investigating.

At the time, Barr ran a top-secret government agency: the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. He was its deputy director. He assured me CSIS was not investigating any such story. Though he said some other agency might be and, if it were, it might not have seen fit to tell CSIS. So I kept digging. Long story short, we found out that Coates and two assistants had been in a bar featuring strippers and hookers outside the Canadian military base in Lahr, Germany. There was no briefcase of secrets involved, but Coates’s officials had misled Lahr’s base commander. They had used his official car, were tailed by military police and had spread expense-account money around the bar. Coates resigned and Privy Council Office security officials, we discovered, had been looking into the case.

When I returned from Germany, though, I read in the Toronto Sun that CSIS had also been pursuing an investigation. I’ll never forget the reply when I called Archie Barr back and demanded to know why he had denied it: “Our investigation started a few seconds after you walked out my door,” he said. “This is a two-way street, young fellow.” That’s called being schooled by a pro. Not your usual cop

Archie Barr died quietly last Sunday in Kingston, Ont., after decades of kidney disease. He was in his late-70s.
He joined the RCMP at 18 and would eventually be sent off by the force to the Royal College of Defence Studies in London, U.K. I cannot say I knew him well. I’m not sure anyone did. He was a cipher even to other spies, and Scots-Canadian farm boys from Winnipeg don’t open easily to others, especially reporters. But I grew to consider him something of a friend. I also realized he was one of the smartest people I had ever met. We’ve corresponded for years.

When I first met him, in 1982, he was still a cop — a chief superintendent in the RCMP security service, where he’d spent a career chasing around Cold War spies and trying to persuade East Bloc diplomats and citizens to betray their countries. I had met lots of cops by that time, but none like him.

He didn’t believe in the us-versus-them code that guides most police. He believed that law enforcement agencies are there to protect the civil rights of the population, not violate them. He believed that if someone is investigated and found to be without fault, the fact that person was investigated at all should remain a deeply guarded secret. He also believed, as did at least two royal commissions that examined the sometimes illegal antics of the RCMP, that police, with their black-and-white, arrest-the-bad-guy approach, don’t make good intelligence agents. And he talked freely about “our sins.” He felt the Mounties had some atoning to do.

Starting CSIS
That view didn’t make him particularly popular in certain circles of the RCMP. Nonetheless, he went on to become the guiding intellect behind the establishment of CSIS, Canada’s first civilian intelligence agency.
“It would not have happened without Archie,” an old colleague who followed him into CSIS told me this week. “It was uncommon within the RCMP to run into someone with his intelligence and determination.” CSIS was a quid pro quo. The new agency was given unheard-of powers, subject to judicial approval. In return, Archie Barr ensured CSIS submitted to an unheard-of level of oversight — both its inspector general and the Security Intelligence Review Committee have carte blanche to go through its files.

“He knew the faith and credit of the Canadian public was the agency’s bread and butter,” said his former co-spy. “He is probably most responsible for what we have now, which is a pretty good agency, with a reputation around the world.” Barr was a counter-intelligence guy from another era. He was a close friend of Sir William Stephenson, the famed Canadian “Man called Intrepid” whose spying on Nazi Germany helped change the course of the Second World War. Barr even introduced me once to the great spymaster.

He was also a trusted contemporary of James Jesus Angleton, the fanatically anti-Communist CIA executive who tore that agency apart during the 1960s and 1970s, looking for Soviet moles. Angleton at one point named former Canadian prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Lester B. Pearson as possible Communist agents, and it is probably no coincidence that Barr and a few other young Mounties began Operation Featherbed, a mole-chasing exercise that ended up investigating hundreds, if not thousands of Canadians, including journalists and, reportedly, Trudeau himself. “We did probably cast the net too wide,” says Archie’s ex-colleague today. “But we knew we were penetrated, and operations were going sour, and we did what we had to do.” Featherbed was sealed decades ago, and remains sealed today.

A frightening power
Being part of operations such as Featherbed almost certainly had something to do with Barr’s conviction later in life that intelligence agencies need leashes. Justice John Major delivered a scathing report in June 2010 on the RCMP and CSIS and the way they handled the 1985 Air India bombing. He called it a ‘cascading series of errors.’ (Canadian Press). It may have even contributed to his belief that intelligence agents and reporters were not adversaries, but, in their own ways, support systems for democracy, something he tried routinely to convince his colleagues of. We both attempt to uncover bad behaviour, he once told me, we just report it differently.

That’s not to say Barr was everyone’s source. But he would pick up his phone, and he would answer serious questions, and reporters who bothered would learn that there are real threats to Canada’s security and that dealing with them is a serious business. He provided some insights I will never forget. People never see themselves as they truly are, he used to say. Even the smartest ones. If you understand that, and you can understand how a person does see himself, you can exercise a frightening power over that individual. That is how a good spy handles his agents, and that is how cult leaders exercise their hold on people, and that is how good managers manage. It is also why reporters can be so easily manipulated, and realizing that is essential if you want to do the job properly.

From time to time, I felt I could recognize Barr’s theories and musings in accounts by certain other journalists. Often, it would be those accounts of politicians who loved having secret organizations at their disposal, and who wanted results, but of course also wanted deniability in the event something went wrong. And things did go wrong. Archie’s personal demon was Babbar Khalsa, the Sikh extremist group almost certainly responsible for the Air India bombings in 1985. CSIS was a young agency, still running on RCMP rules, and it failed, probably more because of human error and imperfection and bad judgment than laziness or malfeasance.

From where I sit, Archie Barr was a Canadian patriot. More reporters should meet spies like him. He may have sinned. We all have. But he was among the very few responsible for making the shadowy world more accountable to the public it serves.

A footnote: I was sued by Bob Coates for the story about his adventures in Germany, and in the course of testimony, a rather foolish ex-boss at the newspaper for which I worked blurted out that Neil Macdonald had a source in CSIS.
Coates of course wanted the name and I tried the journalistic stonewall, but the reality soon became clear. I had a choice: Name Archie Barr or lose the lawsuit. I finally called him, and he told me that if it became public that he had spoken to me, he’d be finished at CSIS. That said, if the newspaper promised to appeal, he would come forward himself if the case was lost in the high court.

Eventually, he said, we all have to take responsibility for what we do. As it turned out, Coates dropped the suit, so it wasn’t necessary. But I am certain Archie Barr would have stepped forward.
Like I said, he was a pro.