Skyhawk, Skyshield, and the Re-Classification of Canadian History

Timothy Andrews Sayle, University of Toronto |

I want to preface this note by saying that the ATIP shop at Library and Archives Canada has been doing exceptionally good work over the last few years. Release packages are being returned quickly with a minimum of sanitization. Researchers who file ATIP requests can genuinely feel LAC’s commitment to openness. LAC has introduced an online form (here) which speeds up the process. Previously completed Access to Information requests can be ordered (here), which is an excellent way to keep up with newly released material. Now, too, the Office of the Information Commissioner has an online form for complaints (here) – the painful importance of which I’ll explain below.

A Problem:

Despite myriad problems with the Access to Information Act and the stalled and frustrating process of its renewal, the Act works very well for historians seeking access to documents held at LAC. That said, every once and a while, a release package arrives that suggests something broken in the declassification process. What I describe below is timely, relating to an article Asa McKercher and I have just published in The Historical Journal, “Skyhawk, Skyshield, and the Soviets: Revisiting Canada’s Cold War.”(in First View online, at the moment). The article explores a particular episode of Canadian history: Canada-United States air defence exercises in the Cold War. By coincidence – painful coincidence – I received an ATIP release package that shows the continued classification of basic information from our article that we had found in archives in Canada, the United States, and online.

The point of this post is not – or not only – to assuage my frustration over a single request, but to point to a larger problem with the current process of Access requests. When records are referred outside of LAC, to analysts who have no sense of what has been previously released, no historical sensibility and – dare I say, no Google skills – Canada has a slow, expensive, and wasteful system. It does not need to be this way.

Most researchers have their own stories of frustration, and complaining about sanitizations and redactions is nothing new. Nonetheless, the goal here is to sketch out (and hopefully later, update) one particular request, release, and complaint. This might be helpful for those seeking out information for their own projects, and might – just might – be heard in Ottawa a plea for applying some basic common sense to the processing of requests for historical documents.

The nitty gritty: On March 24, 2017, I requested a series of files from Record Group 2-B-2 – the Central Registry Files of Privy Council Office from 1953-1959 – held at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). This is a great record set for historians interested in Canada’s international history (and indeed, just about any part of Canadian history). On external affairs and defence files, relevant folders contain a smattering of documents from DEA and DND but also odd scatterings of notes, comments, and scribblings from the Clerk and others in the PCO. The DND (RG24) and DEA (RG25) files will always be the bread-and-butter for research projects in this era, but RG2 can add important perspective. As of right now, these files are searchable on LAC’s online catalogue, although there is no “arrangement structure” or online finding aid (no. 2-15-3).

The documents I requested were titled “CABINET – Cabinet Committees – Defence Committee,” dated from 1953-1959. The original file number was C-20-9(a). I requested these files in relation to my current research project, but also because the documents within are missing from other collections of Cabinet Defence Committee records. (See here.)

I learned shortly after making my requests that the files were partially open, but that some documents had been retained after an earlier review sometime in the 1990s. I elected to go forward with a new review of any documents that were still restricted and inaccessible to the public.

It took 266 days, it turns out, to review the 47 pages remaining. (This is unreasonable, in my view; the Act stipulates that responses should be made within 30 days, unless compelling reasons require an extension.) Overall, however, I’m not so concerned about the wait. I file a lot of requests and I know how hard LAC ATIP analysts work to manage and coordinate these requests. If there is a delay, it is almost always because the files have gone out for consultation elsewhere: into the gaping black hole that is a line department – or worse, a central agency. Given the provenance of these files, it is not unlikely that they were referred to the Privy Council Office. I should say, too, that I am not that exercised about the fact that sanitizations were made to documents that were, at a minimum, 58 years old. I’m of the school that is willing to imagine there are still some secrets worth keeping – but that they are very few and far between.

The real concern, and the real worry, is that the documents that came back were sanitized, and the sanitizations or redactions obscured material that is in the public domain – and is in the public domain because it has already been released by the Government of Canada. What is worse: it has already been published by the Government of Canada.

In one sense, the Government of Canada has deemed information already in the public domain as secret and re-classified. Ultimately, I expect, there was little nefarious here and just a frustrating lack of knowledge of Canadian history and what the Government of Canada has made previously available.

The Sanitizations:

Let me show you just what was missing in the records that were returned.

[Detail from Record of Cabinet Decision, Meeting of November 6, 1959, Record Group 2, acc. 1990-91/154, file C-20-9[a], Library and Archives Canada.]
Let’s start with a two page document: “Record of Cabinet Decision, Meeting of November 6, 1959. Cabinet Defence Committee report,” from the file I identified above.

In an early section on the first page describing what the Cabinet did at the meeting, there are a number of sanitizations:

[Detail from Record of Cabinet Decision, Meeting of November 6, 1959, Record Group 2, acc. 1990-91/154, file C-20-9[a], Library and Archives Canada.]
What is happening here?

In section (a) it is clear that someone is asking the Government of Canada to store something at Goose Bay, and also that the Cabinet is considering an upcoming September 1960 air defence exercise similar to something else – possibly the name of a previous exercise. Section (c) clearly relates to the storage issue – the storage of something that could be used “under authorized plans” and that that something, whatever it is, had an “operational use.”

[Detail from Record of Cabinet Decision, Meeting of November 6, 1959, Record Group 2, acc. 1990-91/154, file C-20-9[a], Library and Archives Canada.]
On the next page, in section (d) the defence exercise is discussed further.

[Detail from Memorandum for the Prime Minister, October 23, 1959, Record Group 2, acc. 1990-91/154, file C-20-9[a], Library and Archives Canada.]
The name of the exercise seems to be indicated again on a separate “Memorandum for the Prime Minister,” October 23, 1959, making clear that the exercise is a “re-staging” of one that has occurred previously.

In both cases, the information was withheld under Section 13.1(a) of the Act: i.e. because it was “obtained in confidence” from “the government of a foreign state or an institution thereof.” Note that this information may be disclosed if the foreign government “consents to the disclosure” or “makes the information public.”

A Test:

I decided to set myself a test. It took the Government of Canada 266 days to determine that this information could not be released to me. How long would it take to find this information in the public domain? Admittedly, given the article mentioned above, I have a head start here. The information is all openly available in archives in Ottawa, at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, and in the National Archives and Research Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland.

Information about these air defence exercises and a whole series of exercises from this period­–Skyhawk, Steel Trap, and Skyshield–are also from research portals like the Digital National Security Archive. (For evidence, you’ll have to look at our footnotes in the article!)

Let’s just forget the archival research and the closed portals like the DNSA. What is available online, easily, and for free?

Let’s start with the air defence exercises. With just a modicum of Googling, you’ll find that Canada and the United States planned to hold an exercise called “Skyshield” in September 1960 – in fact, the series of Skyshield exercises have their own Wikipedia page. A bit more Googling for “air defence exercise” brings up Andrew Richter’s Avoiding Armageddon: Canadian Military Strategy and Nuclear Weapons, 1950-1963 (UBC Press, 2011), and reveals that the earlier name for such exercises was “Sky Hawk.” Don’t forget – the analyst deciding if that information should be released already knows the names of the exercises. (As an aside, note that both Skyhawk and Skyshield were plans for joint exercises, and so I think Section 13 is really inapplicable. Joint plans are not “obtained in confidence” from another government, or they wouldn’t be “joint” at all; they’re just as much Government of Canada information as American information.)

What then could an analyst do with that information, the names “Sky Hawk” or “Skyshield”? Quite a lot, it turns out. The United States Department of State has made all of its Foreign Relations of the United States volumes available online and word searchable.

A search for “Sky Hawk” brings up seven documents, all with details about the planned exercise. “Sky Shield” brings up three. This information has been available in print since 1993 in some cases, and has been online for years (certainly during the processing of my request). The Government of Canada is deeming secret something that the United States has not only declassified but already published.

In fact, the Government of Canada – or at least other parts of it – have not considered these to be secrets worth keeping. John Hilliker and Donald Barry discuss “Skyhawk” in Canada’s Department of External Affairs, Volume 2: Coming of Age, 1946-1968 (McGill-Queen’s Press, 1995). What’s more, the Government of Canada itself published several documents related to later iterations of Skyshield in its Documents on Canadian External Relations (see here). The most intrepid analyst might have found Asa McKercher’s new Camelot and Canada: Canadian-American Relations in the Kennedy Era (Oxford: 2016), and discovered that the footnotes available online show the document titles and archival locations of publicly available records on BOTH Skyhawk and Skyshield. Some of them are even in Ottawa.

Perhaps this is too much expect. I submit it isn’t – I’ve done this Googling in less than half an hour (not 266 days). Searching in Foreign Relations of the United States really could not be made any easier, though Documents on Canadian External Affairs is a little trickier. That said, they are all available online here.

What if there was just one handy place to check online if some information has been previously released by the Government of Canada? Somewhere that kept an online, searchable database of Cabinet Conclusions? It just so happens that Library and Archives Canada built such a portal years ago.

It turns out that the Cabinet did discuss Skyhawk or Skyshield many times – there are SEVENTEEN responsible Cabinet Conclusions – and they are all available online and free of charge from the Library and Archives Canada website. One of them, coincidentally enough, is entitled “Exercise ‘Sky Shield’; public announcement” discussing the timing of a public announcement of the exercise by both Canada and the United States. How could something announced 58 years ago be secret now?

The saddest thing of all is that the Government of Canada has not, or was not, trying to hide this information. In fact, in 2006, via the Documents on Canadian External Relations series, this sanitized information was published. It is available in libraries and online – I remember seeing a full set of DCERs in Canada House, in London. These are beautiful and important volumes that the Government spends money on, trying to share Canada’s history. Compare the following:

[Detail from Documents on Canadian External Relations, vol. 26., available (here) under the 2006 tab.]
[Detail from Record of Cabinet Decision, Meeting of November 6, 1959, Record Group 2, acc. 1990-91/154, file C-20-9[a], Library and Archives Canada.]
To recapitulate:

I requested declassification of a small number of documents. It took multiple government departments 266 days to determine that I – and other Canadians – could not have access to some information in those records, even though that information was publicly available in archives. It is also available in United States and Government of Canada publications that are online and word-searchable. During those 266 days, somebody had to pore through these documents line by line and decide what could or should not be made available. Now, I expect LAC has to make duplicates of the sanitized copies so that researchers don’t see the exempted information; the originals probably have to be filed separately and securely, taking up more time and space.

I have filed a complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada. I have great respect for the OIC and was thrilled to be a guest at the Transparency Conference. Sadly, though, I’ve been informed an investigator likely will be assigned to my file for 6 months. I expect this will all be resolved after a few unnecessary years and countless hours spent by government analysts going back and forth as to whether to make this already-available information available.

And what about those “things” stored at Goose Bay? Oh, right! Those were nuclear weapons. But everyone knows about that.

[Detail from Cabinet Conclusions search results, Library and Archives Canada website.]

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