On September 3, 1939, one week before entering the Second World War, Canada enacted the War Measures Act, and implemented the Defence of Canada Regulations. These regulations gave the government broad powers to suspend due process, arrest and detain enemy aliens, designate protected areas, and restrict movement. They also granted the government broad powers to censor both public and private communications to ensure that no information of potential use to the enemy would leave the country. The act authorized the government to monitor overseas and overland radio, cable, telegraph, and telephone communications, and gave them the power to prevent the publication of any potentially sensitive information in the press. Off-limits were any discussions of the size and number of armaments, equipment, munitions or troops, any talk of specific military operations or efforts at fortification, any information about the location or numbers of prisoners of war, and any information “which would or might be directly or indirectly useful to the enemy.”[1]

            At first, Canada’s censorship efforts were largely defensive, and decentralized. The Post Office was assigned to mail censorship, the Army headed up censorship of telecommunications, the Department of Transport was assigned to radio broadcasts, and the National War Office was charged with press censorship. All simply aimed to prevent sensitive information from leaving the country, and all had different (and sometimes competing) priorities.[2] Over time, however, these efforts developed into something of an intelligence-gathering mechanism, driven in part by the Department of External Affairs. Postal censorship in particular produced something of an information overload, and it was Thomas Stone and George Glazebrook – both of External Affairs – who attempted to introduce more structure and analysis to the process.[3] Yet overwhelming amounts of raw material continued to filter in. In 1942, Glazebrook, and then Norman Robertson, the under-secretary of state for External Affairs lobbied for a reorganization of censorship, calling for a clearer mandate for censorship activities, a central authority to direct censorship activities, and a better link between censorship activities and intelligence-gathering.[4]

            They were rewarded in May of that year. The censorship function was shifted to the National War Office, Colonel O.M. Biggar was appointed the director of censorship, and a committee was formed to coordinate and set priorities for censorship activities.[5] One would think that a more rationalized, focused effort could now prevail. Yet as these documents show, telephone censorship proved somewhat difficult to bring in line. Telephone censors dealt with a large number of directives from several agencies, and some continued to follow out-of-date instructions. Adding to the confusion, the RCMP carried out their own independent telephone monitoring. All this left DEA officials unsure of who was listening to whom at any given time, or why the listening was happening at all. This posed a significant problem when it came to listening in on diplomatic traffic. Even a whiff of this kind of impropriety was seen as something that could be deeply damaging to DEA officials.

            In an interesting twist, these documents also reveal that DEA officials - the architects of the Canadian censorship-intelligence link - were themselves targets of the censorship and intelligence-gathering efforts of the Americans. Though the United States did not enter the war until 1941, their censorship efforts had been planned long in advance. In September 1939, President Roosevelt declared a state of national emergency, and assigned the Army to begin planning for postal censorship, while the Navy was to begin planning for cable, telegraph, and telephone censorship.[6] When the United States officially entered the war, a central censorship authority was quickly mobilized. Roosevelt created the Office of Censorship and appointed Byron Price, a veteran journalist, as its director. A Code of Wartime Practices followed in early 1942, defining the kinds of information that could not be shared through communication channels. Further regulations specified the permitted languages of communication (for example, cable and radio communications had to be conducted in either English, French, Spanish or Portuguese).[7] The Americans also pursued international coordination of the censorship efforts. Price initiated conversations with British censorship in early 1941, and a tripartite censorship agreement between the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada was signed in January 1942.[8] The three nations agreed to “a complete exchange of information between the three Censorships, and that insofar as possible the work would be divided to avoid duplication.”[9] The groundwork had been laid for a cooperative relationship.

            Yet the Canadians’ collaborative censorship efforts with the Americans afforded them no special privileges for their own diplomatic communications. DEA officials expressed no small measure of irritation, finding that their long-distance calls to and from the United States were interrupted by telephone censors, who simply cut the line if they believed any sensitive information was being discussed. Additionally, calls being routed from Canada through the United States on their way to a third country were monitored by the American censors. But perhaps the most concerning aspect for DEA officials was not that telephone censors were listening in, but that the FBI was monitoring their communications and circulating information from their telephone calls. Like the RCMP, the FBI had been charged with wartime security intelligence and rooting out potential subversion. With authority granted to them by Roosevelt, and little oversight, the FBI pursued a campaign of wiretapping and surveillance against foe, and apparently, friend, alike.[10]

            Despite the annoyance and concern expressed by DEA officials, the Canadians eventually decided to let them matter drop, believing that it would be too difficult to receive assurances of a censorship exemption from the State Department, and harder still to stop the FBI from eavesdropping on their private conversations. One could surmise as well that the Canadians also wished to keep their relationship with a powerful ally and intelligence-sharing partner trouble free. In this acquiescence, there is perhaps a certain familiarity.[11] Though Canadians today maintain close intelligence ties with the United States, they still cannot be sure of a reasonable privilege of private communications when it comes to their neighbour to the south.  

[1] Defence of Canada Regulations 1939. Ottawa: [King's Printer], 1939, 26.

[2] Kurt F. Jensen, Cautious Beginnings: Canadian Foreign Intelligence, 1939-51, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008), 74, 77.

[3] Jensen, Cautious Beginnings, 75-76.

[4] Ibid., 77-78.

[5] Ibid., 78.

[6] United States Government Historical Reports on War Administration, Office of Censorship: Series 1, a Report on the Office of Censorship. 1945, 3.

[7] A Report on the Office of Censorship., 6.

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Athan Theorharis, "FBI Wiretapping: A Case Study of Bureaucratic Autonomy". Political Science Quarterly, 107, no. 1: 1992: 103.  

[11] James Ball and Paul Farrell, “NSA considered spying on Australians ‘unilaterally’, leaked paper reveals,” The Guardian, December 5 2013, accessed