Most Canadians seem to have an extraordinary — sometimes naive — faith that if they tell the truth, their government will do the right thing, come to the right conclusion, or make the right decision.
It is one of those charming, but also maybe alarming aspects of our character.
David and Elena Crenna certainly fell into that category at the beginning of their bizarre six-year legal odyssey that saw the Canada Border Services Agency’s war crimes investigation unit accuse Elena, a former Russian translator, of being a post-Cold War spy.
The Liberal government quietly abandoned its case against her last month after a Federal Court judge essentially challenged justice department lawyers and border agency officials to read the legal and dictionary definition of espionage.
“I am unable to reasonably find any reason to believe the applicant was engaged in anything secret, clandestine, surreptitious or covert,” Federal Court Justice Henry Brown ruled in April.
Crenna had previously been deemed inadmissible to Canada by an immigration adjudicator who sided with a Canadian Border Agency assessment that concluded she helped the Russian security service spy.
Governments talk a lot today fighting disinformation, particularly Russian and Chinese online attacks and smears, but abjectly fail to appreciate that lying to sow discord and lying to save one’s skin is a time-honoured, well-honed tradition of spies, according to one of Canada’s leading intelligence experts.
More that, there is a dearth of institutional knowledge, understanding and significantly an appreciation of recent history within federal officialdom, said Wesley Wark, a professor at the University of Ottawa.
He is withering in his criticism of Crenna’s case, and frightened by its implications.
“This isn’t just a minor case of bureaucracy gone slightly astray,” Wark said in an interview. “I think it is a major case of a bureaucracy that just didn’t know how to operate in the face of these kinds of threats. We need to be able to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.”
The federal case against Elena Crenna — which Wark described as “a ruthless waste of time” — rested on the dubious word of a now-dead Russian defector.
While doing translation and marketing for a humanitarian housing project in Tver, Russia, the former Elena Filatova said she was approached by an agent of SVR (formerly known as the KGB and later the FSB) who wanted to know what the Canadians were doing.
She did, with the full knowledge and support of her boss, now husband, David Crenna, who said he and Elena were obliged to be transparent with Russian authorities to avoid having the translation project shut down. The pair eventually married in 2012.
Elena Crenna told CBC News in the spring that she never passed along secret information about project she was working on, and did not covertly gather intelligence.
Years later, a FSB defector wrote a tell-all book that alleged a Canadian disarmament program in the 1990s had been penetrated by Russian intelligence.
Without naming either David or Elena Crenna, Sergei Tretyakov claimed Russian intelligence had set a “honey trap” to collect information about the project, referring to the relationship that developed between the Crennas.
(In intelligence circles, a honey trap is an operation that uses sex or romantic entanglements to trick or blackmail targets into giving up information.)
Canadian and American intelligence officials, including CSIS and the FBI, interviewed the couple and found their version of events credible.
It was only when Canadian immigration officials were about to allow Elena to stay permanently in the country that border services objected using the information the Crennas had truthfully offered up to the agency in interviews.
It was “Kafkaesque,” said Wark, who believes it is imperative that the agency not be allowed to simply walk away from the case without some kind of introspection and review.
“This is more than just a human tragedy because I think the case reveals a lack of expertise within CBSA, which is troubling given that CBSA is responsible for border security risk management, and responsible for administration of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act,” he said. “I think it reveals some considerable dysfunction among the elements of the Canadian government.”
Wark said it demonstrates “a very significant lack of understanding about the nature of espionage threats” and complete “lack of understanding of the historical context that they were looking at in this particular case.”
The threats in today’s world are too serious and complex for border services to make mistakes of this kind in the future, he said.
Wark is calling on Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to institute a review of how the case was handled. Failing that, he is recommending that the National Security Intelligence Review Agency or even the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians look at what happened.
Canada Border Services has routinely declined comment on the case, citing privacy.
For his part, David Crenna doesn’t want to see all of the agency turned upside down — just the war crimes unit that initiated the case against his wife.
The federal government must ensure that section of the agency is “equipped and trained and capable of doing the kind of national security job” that is expected of it, he said.
To watch federal officials “swallow hook, line and sinker” the narrative of a Russian defector trained in disinformation was disheartening and somewhat frightening, he said.
“Essentially, we thought this being Canada that if we told the truth and co-operated, they would eventually come to the conclusion that we were telling the truth,” said David Crenna, who must now go through all of the federal paperwork for his wife to be readmitted to Canada.
She has been stuck in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic where she had been awaiting the results of the court case.
There is no indication when Elena Crenna will be allowed to return.