03/23/2012 04:30 EDT | Updated 05/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Mountie spies grilled Herbert Norman's widow years after diplomat killed himself

OTTAWA - The RCMP spied on the widow of Herbert Norman more than a decade after the Canadian diplomat — dogged by unproven accusations of Cold War disloyalty — leapt from a building to his death in Cairo, newly declassified records show.

The Mounties suspected Norman may have been in league with the Soviets, prompting RCMP investigations to go awry before he killed himself in 1957.

It led them to gather information on his wife Irene and grill her for details in a 1969 interview — secret until now — in which she vigorously defended her late husband.

The records are among 2,198 pages of security files released to The Canadian Press by Library and Archives Canada under the Access to Information Act. While several documents in the Norman dossier have trickled out over the years, many pages are now public for the first time. Limited portions of the file remain secret.

In many eyes, Norman's death has become emblematic of the anger and resentment toward the anti-Communist campaign led by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the United States.

Norman recovered from early-1950s scrutiny of his flirtation with left-wing politics during his student days. But the issue threatened to re-emerge at a U.S. Senate committee years later. Some believe the American Communist hunters actually had their eye on Lester B. Pearson, Norman's boss at External Affairs and a future Liberal prime minister.

A 1990 report by political scientist Peyton Lyon found that while Norman had embraced Communism in the 1930s, he was never a card-carrying party member.

Lyon, who had special access to the security files on Norman, concluded there was "not one iota of evidence" he was a spy or agent of influence.

The newly released records show Norman was among 68 senior government officials whose names were checked with allied intelligence services to see if there was anything incriminating in their files. In all cases, nothing turned up in the 1968 searches — a thread of the long-running Operation Feather Bed, the RCMP's effort to identify Communist sympathizers in government.

But the Mounties never fully abandoned their suspicions about Norman.

In April 1969, an RCMP staff sergeant from the security branch contacted Irene Norman, requesting an interview that afternoon.

He and a partner turned up at her Ottawa apartment hours later, explaining that no one from the Mounties had talked to her about her husband's death, and that information had arisen suggesting he had been less than frank about his associations.

"At the conclusion of our opening remarks, she exhibited some emotional strain and appeared tense," says the staff sergeant's report of the encounter. "In a manner which suggested the topic was highly unpleasant, the subject stated that there was nothing she could say or add to what had already been stated publicly."

Irene Norman told the Mounties there were no "political overtones" to her husband's death, spoke of the "emotional breakdown" he suffered each time his name was mentioned in connection with the U.S. proceedings, and revealed that he had talked about taking his own life.

She insisted her husband, a man of ideas, was interested in left-wing ideas merely in an intellectual sense.

At one point her voice quavered and she came close to tears.

An interview summary underscores the RCMP's lingering suspicion and frustration.

"We cannot determine whether Mrs. Norman's lack of co-operation is simply based on an understandable unwillingness to rake up a very unpleasant personal matter or whether her attitude has more serious implications."

Behind the scenes, the Mounties learned from "a delicate and reliable source" close to Irene Norman that she had arranged for a friend to call during the interview so she could excuse herself.

The source also told the RCMP that the day after the interview, Norman had contacted John Starnes, then a senior security official at External Affairs, to see if he knew anything about the RCMP's interest in her. The account indicates Starnes was unaware of the Mounties' effort and tried to play down the incident.

"We will maintain contact with our reliable source for a while yet, for any future developments," says a handwritten note on the RCMP memo.

The Mounties even kept track of Irene Norman's love life, commenting on her relationship with a Toronto man.

Following her husband's suicide, Irene worked in Ottawa as a dietitian, in real estate and as a volunteer. She died nine years ago in Ottawa at 93. Her obituary notes she was pleased to be called a "cynical optimist."

The RCMP's targeting of Irene Norman long after her husband's demise is bizarre, said Reg Whitaker, a research professor emeritus at Toronto's York University.

"What were they doing interviewing Mrs. Norman 12 years after?" said Whitaker, who has written extensively about Norman.

"It puts them in a very negative light. It gave me a really bad feeling reading that stuff."

Starnes, a fellow diplomat who travelled the globe with his wife, fondly remembers the Normans.

"Both he and his wife were very kind to us when we first joined the foreign service," said Starnes, still spry at 94. "They were very, very helpful and they went out of their way, and we appreciated that very much."

Starnes, who was posted to Cairo in 1966, recalls climbing up to the rooftop from which Norman jumped, thinking of how distraught he must have been.

"Why did he do it? God knows," said Starnes, who left External Affairs to become head of the RCMP security branch in 1969.

"I would be very surprised if in any way he'd ever helped the Russians. I just don't think so."

Starnes says he recalls little about Operation Feather Bed and the secret mole hunt.

But one of the Mounties trying "to identify the Soviet agent" wrote in June 1969 of "a very close look" at 55 External Affairs members, press correspondents in Ottawa, and others.

The assessment — which assigned scores to each candidate — concluded there was a "very good" possibility that Norman had been the agent. "He had the motivation, the access and opportunity."

"The fact that Norman committed suicide is indicative of a very questionable past."

The newly disclosed Norman records also clearly indicate the RCMP security branch had a file on Pearson as late as April 1968, while he was prime minister.

Followup requests by The Canadian Press to both Library and Archives Canada and CSIS did not unearth a file, suggesting it was destroyed in a record purge.

Starnes scoffed upon seeing the file notation on Pearson, known as Mike to acquaintances.

"Well that's absolute nonsense," said Starnes. "Mike Pearson being a Soviet mole?"

He recalls protesting loudly to the Americans that Pearson was no rogue agent.

"Why on Earth they would think that Mike was a Soviet spy is beyond me."