03/22/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 05/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Operation Feather Bed: RCMP's Fruitless Cold War Mole Hunt Zeroed In On Key Diplomats

OTTAWA - Dozens of prominent government officials — including several blue-chip diplomats and politicians — came under RCMP suspicion of being traitors as the Mounties scrambled to uncover a suspected Soviet mole in their ranks at the height of the Cold War.

Newly released archival records show that even the cream of Canada's foreign service was not immune from scrutiny in the top secret RCMP investigation known as Operation Feather Bed.

The legendary Feather Bed probe, which stretched from the late 1950s into the 1970s, saw RCMP security branch investigators pore over the backgrounds of possible Communist sympathizers in the public service and political sphere — including a future Mountie spy chief.

There is no evidence the highly confidential investigation ever identified a Soviet agent.

Even so, details of the operation have long remained a closely guarded secret, decades after the Canadian Security Intelligence Service took over surveillance duties from the RCMP.

A three-page, July 1968 memo reveals the Mounties asked allied intelligence services to check their files for information on 68 senior government officials — most of them current or former diplomats — as part of the Feather Bed investigation.

Among them were Arnold Heeney, Norman Robertson, Tommy Stone and Hume Wrong — accomplished foreign service officers who helped forge the international reputation of Canada's External Affairs Department following the Second World War.

Two other senior diplomats on the list — George Ignatieff and Saul Rae — had sons, Michael and Bob, respectively, who would become leaders of the federal Liberal party.

Charles "Bud" Drury and Jack Pickersgill, meanwhile, were influential Liberal cabinet ministers.

A cover sheet says inquiries concerning the 68 met with "negative results." However, a handwritten notation to a registry official asks that the memo be placed "on the files of each of the individuals listed in the attachment" — suggesting that RCMP interest was deeper than a simple check with foreign counterparts.

The Canadian Press used the Access to Information Act to obtain a copy of the list, long buried in retired RCMP security records at Library and Archives Canada.

The focus on members of External Affairs seems to reflect the concern that Soviet agents would target the most important government agencies of the day — the foreign policy and international fields coming to the forefront following the war.

In that sense, the nature of the list is not surprising, given the suspicion on the part of police toward the "fancy-pants diplomats," said Reg Whitaker, a research professor emeritus at Toronto's York University.

Yet in many cases it is far-fetched to believe the individuals could ever have been traitors, Whitaker added.

"Some of them are so bizarrely far from being in any way potential moles."

One of the more ironic inclusions on the 1968 list is John Starnes of security and intelligence at External Affairs, who would be appointed director of the RCMP security branch the following year.

Starnes said in an interview that considering the many intelligence contacts he had accrued during a lengthy foreign service career, the Mounties were only exercising due diligence by vetting him as part of the hunt for subversives.

"I did not know I was being investigated by Feather Bed, but that doesn't surprise me the least," said Starnes, his recall still sharp at 94. "In fact, I would've been surprised if they hadn't done so."

A followup request to Library and Archives Canada for a separate RCMP file opened on Starnes turned up nothing — suggesting there was no dossier or that it was destroyed. At least 136 Feather Bed files were purged in authorized reviews.

However, there is a voluminous file on Ignatieff, which includes a June 1970 study — prepared in connection with Feather Bed — of the career diplomat's family tree extending back to czarist Russia. It also makes brief mention of George's son and future Liberal leader Michael, then a recent graduate of the University of Toronto who had caught the Mounties' eye while organizing conferences on international affairs.

"Based strictly on the information contained in our files, there is no reason to doubt the loyalty of the Ignatieffs to Canada," concludes the RCMP study, recently released under the Access to Information law.

For much of the last century, the RCMP kept a close watch for left-wing subversives, monitoring peace groups, the labour movement, halls of higher learning, and even the upper ranks of the public service and the political worlds. For instance, the Mounties amassed large files on NDP leaders David Lewis and Tommy Douglas.

Among the best-known names on the list of 68 officials is Herbert Norman, a former ambassador to Egypt who had killed himself 11 years earlier by jumping off a building in Cairo. Norman's name had come up during U.S. congressional investigations into suspected Communists within government ranks, and it is widely believed the resulting stress and anguish prompted him to commit suicide.

It has long been public that Norman was a principal figure in the Feather Bed investigation. In fact, his inclusion on the list of 68 names was made known to a Carleton University professor Peyton Lyon, hired by the federal government in the late 1980s to look into Norman's loyalties.

However, the other 67 names on the list were withheld from Lyon — underscoring the sensitivity of the Feather Bed file.

The investigation can be traced to 1958 when the RCMP tried to determine whether the Canadian government had been infiltrated by Communist elements along the lines seen in the United States and Britain.

"The basic objective of Feather Bed was the identification and neutralizing of any influential person working as a high level agent of the RIS (Russian intelligence services) against the Canadian government," says a still partially secret memo on the operation.

Five specific cases were singled out, suggesting a need for further investigation.

The effort was invigorated in May 1962 when Anatoliy Golitzyn, a defector from the notorious Soviet KGB, provided "information of Canadian interest" to the Feather Bed probe, say declassified notes.

The leads were used to further the hunt for a Soviet mole suspected of compromising a number of RCMP operations.

Emblematic of the mistrust and paranoia of the era, the RCMP's head of counter-intelligence, Jim Bennett, would himself come under suspicion of being the mole. Though there was no proof, he was quietly forced out of the security service due to incessant chatter and suspicion.

"I liked Jim Bennett very much," Starnes said. "He was a very able man. And I felt very badly the way in which his story unfolded. He certainly wasn't a spy of any kind."

By April 1972, the RCMP was still pursuing 74 Feather Bed leads. But the operation would soon wither as the Mounties began grappling with new realities including the Quebec separatist movement and international terrorism.

The RCMP noted in a 1980 memo that release of any document from the Feather Bed file "would be regretted since it could lead to unfounded suspicions and the defamation of character of innocent people."

In a final irony, it later emerged that one of the RCMP's own, Sgt. Gilles Brunet, had been a paid informant of the Soviets.

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