Trent History professor Dr. Dennis Molinaro has been making noise with his discovery of a secret government document revealing wiretapping operations ordered by Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent’s government in 1951. The file is evidence that St. Laurent’s cabinet ordered RCMP surveillance through wiretaps of those suspected to be spies, communists or otherwise disloyal to Canada. This document has eluded previous researchers. It took Dr. Molinaro 10 months of requests for access before he found a handwritten note in the Library and Archives Canada that told him what the secret law was and where it was located—the Privy Council Office.
For the first time, this order draws a line from the Prime Minister’s office to the RCMP’s secret wiretapping program, “Picnic”. It was previously believed that the RCMP overstepped their authority during the Cold War. However this document proves the order came from PM St. Laurent’s cabinet and not Cold War hysteria ravaging RCMP culture and work practices.
The Picnic edict should have been shown to Parliament and then handed over to the Library and Archives Canada, but that never occurred. Instead, St. Laurent’s cabinet hid their order in the clerk’s office of the Privy Council. So far the Privy Council has denied all attempts to access the file, but the note found in the Library and Archives Canada proves its existence.
Dr. Molinaro’s discovery started with research on the Gouzenko affair.
“I was originally looking at the Official Secrets Act, and that was outgrown from research on Gouzenko,” says the professor. “I was reading newspapers from the time and there were debates in the newspapers about a secret emergency order that was passed in 1951, when the government passed the Emergency Powers Act.” This started Dr. Molinaro on a journey that took up a better part of year to find the secret law.
When news of the discovery first broke, Dr. Molinaro and his research got a lot of attention from the CBC as well as newspapers across the country, with responses he says have been positive.
“People are interested to know about this program, particularly because it has connections to modern-day surveillance … and the second is it has implications for historians and the public for access to information”.
Dr. Molinaro started his academic career as an undergraduate at Trent. He says his interest in government surveillance started when America invaded Iraq under George W. Bush. “The fallout from [the invasion] and the discovery of all the intelligence blunders by the government and the politicizing of the issue … that really interested me.” This news stayed with Dr. Molinaro throughout his education and eventually inspired his PhD thesis, which focused on North American migration and intelligence in international affairs.
After graduate work that took Dr. Molinaro to Queens and University of Toronto, he is now back at Trent teaching History on the Durham campus. In the winter semester he is teaching “Canada in the Age of Consumption”.
Along with his groundbreaking research on the secret wiretapping order, Dr. Molinaro has a book coming out in May called An Exceptional Law: Section 98 and the Emergency State 1919-1936. He regularly updates a blog, The Surveillance Citizen, with commentary on news from intelligence, surveillance and immigration.