William Warden, Diplomat, Dissident, Spook (Privately published: Lisa Warden, 2017).
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Shortly before heart surgery in early 2011, William (“Bill”) Warden handed his daughter, Lisa, a draft of his memoirs about which he had told his family only a little. Sadly, he did not recover from the surgery. Through his prescience, however, and his family’s dedication, an extraordinary set of reflections on a life in public service has survived.
In Lisa Warden’s introduction, she describes this book as both “a personal account of my father’s journey through the Cold War and across the globe through the lens of his career as a Western diplomat” and as “an insider’s view of the evolution of the Foreign Service arm of Canada’s government over the crucial period of the past half-century.” The personal and institutional journeys are linked to some profound global changes, including the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of international terrorism.
In a rare move, this memoir also exposes a seldom-discussed aspect of Canada’s activities abroad. Bill Warden was more than a conventional diplomat. He was as well a departmental intelligence officer. In short, he was a spy.
Warden’s career abroad would seem to have been that of a traditional foreign service generalist. It took him first to the Canadian embassy in Moscow in the mid-1960s and then back to External Affairs in Ottawa, albeit briefly, before serving in Havana (1968-1972), Hong Kong (1977-1981), Islamabad (1981-83) and, finally, New Delhi (1983-86). These posting were far from uneventful. Bill Warden, as the old saying goes, was “condemned” to live in interesting times. The postings , as we shall see, were also not a random walk.
Prior to joining the Department of External Affairs, Warden spent considerable time in divided Germany in the 1950s both as an army officer-in-training and as a student. Indeed, the very day before he headed home to embark upon his foreign service career, in August 1961, he was visiting and saying farewells to friends in East Berlin. Three days later the border he and his wife, Laine, had crossed so easily was closed. The Soviets and East Germans were erecting the Berlin Wall.
A year later, Warden was on the External Affairs Soviet desk, and undertaking Russian language training, when the “surreal drama” of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis unfolded. After moving to the Canadian embassy in Moscow, he watched a Kremlin coup oust Nikita Khrushchev, experienced the early vestiges of détente, worked around the tight rein the KGB tried to keep on Western diplomats at the time, and worked with legendary ambassador Robert Ford and his equally legendary wife, Teresa, who was, in Warden’s words, “the last bastion of the ‘divine right of ambassadoresses’” (p. 41).
After a brief stint back in Ottawa, he was off to the Havana embassy. There, as Canadian chargé d’affaires, he was involved in resolving Canada’s October Crisis in 1970, discussing with the Castro government the asylum it granted to the FLQ members who had kidnapped a British trade commissioner. He was Canada’s commissioner in Hong Kong when China invaded Viet Nam in 1974, high commissioner in Pakistan following the Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan, and then high commisioner in New Delhi when the Indian Army’s assault on Sikhs occupying the Golden Temple led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi and to the bombing of Air India flight 182 by Sikh militants based in Canada. Interesting times indeed. The “diplomat” part of the book’s title was well earned.
As the Delhi posting was coming to its end, Warden contemplated his future, fully aware he “had had a good run.” His thoughts at the time were typically irreverent; he was starting to look “for ways to remove myself from the ‘yes Minister’ crowd” (p. 273). A new career at the University of Calgary began as foreign service visitor and evolved into that of director of its International Centre and a regular columnist on global affairs for the Calgary Herald. (Some of those columns are appended to his memoirs.) He turned himself into an academic entrepreneur, building on his Russian experience, and played a leading role in the creation of the University of Calgary-Gorbachev Foundation Joint Trust Fund. (Mikhail Gorbachev himself provides the book’s foreword.) This work on post-Soviet Russia in effect brought Warden full circle from his first foreign service jobs on the Soviet desk and at Canada’s Moscow embassy.
Both the lengthy career in External Affairs and the career change while he was in his fifties reflect on Warden and on the Canadian foreign service. The 1950s and 1960s were the “halcyon days” of External Affairs in Ottawa and internationally. Its officers, he notes, were conditioned to think of themselves as members of an elite department in Ottawa. Unlike many of his colleagues, however, he was not much interested in ascending the bureaucratic “pecking order.” Ottawa was most often “boring.” “Of [my] twenty-seven years of government service,” he says, “I considered my crowning achievement … managing to stay away from Ottawa for most of them, including the final ten” (p. 21). For Warden, the Foreign Service provided a marvellous home for exploring the world and the best possible way to “accumulate … life-enriching experiences” (p. 289). Those experiences led him eventually to become highly critical of American policies and allied acquiescene. Hence the “dissident” part of the book’s title.
What then of the “spook” part? Warden’s career as an intelligence officer was always intertwined with his work as a diplomat. The linkage was and is essential to those who have “official cover” at an embassy. Canada posts them abroad as diplomats: host governments give them accreditation as such. Hence, they gain diplomatic immunity. They cannot be arrested for activities “unbecoming” their diplomatic status; they can only be declared persona non grata andsent home.
What is highly unusual in Warden’s memoir is the frankness with which he acknowledges his intelligence work. (After all, Canada still has an Official Secrets Act with severe penalties for divulging state secrets.) Intelligence activities were the common thread running through almost all of Warden’s varied postings. These activities directly challenge the old myth that Canada does not spy abroad.
Even as a very junior diplomat in Moscow, Bill Warden worked at cracking the enigma that was the USSR. When allowed to travel outside Moscow, he made notes on everything he saw and compiled reports for a sort of shared allied intelligence atlas of the Soviet Union. Back in Ottawa, his assignment was to the obscurely-named “Defence Liaison” division, the unit in External Affairs that actually handled intelligence and security matters.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ottawa sent Warden to Havana as embassy intelligence officer. (His predeccessors in that position include John Graham whose recently published memoirs detail his own intelligence work in Cuba. ) Warden’s charge was to gather political and military intelligence for the CIA, including investigating an alleged Soviet nuclear submarine base under construction off the port of Cienfuegos. His frequent visits to the area were supplemented by information from a local resident whom Warden himself had recruited (i.e., an agent).
Warden later reported on the People’s Republic of China from the vantage point of Hong Kong during the late 1970s, sometimes offering more accurate assessments of Chinese military plans than those of Canada’s ambassador in Beijing. While managing the embassy in Islamabad in the early 1980s, he frequented Pakistan’s Northwest, under what he calls “directives”, to report on the mujahideen’s battleagainst Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan – a battle covertly assisted by the CIA – and to monitor the flow of millions of Afghan refugees to camps in Pakistan’s wild frontier, camps suported by Canadian aid dollars.
Most of Warden’s assignments during the 1960s, 70s and 80s thus put him on the “front lines” of the Cold War and the struggle with international communism. Whatever the immediate goal of a particular mission on a given day, his ultimate intelligence targets were the Soviet Union and China. His reporting was most often directed by and delivered to the U.S. intelligence community.
The main exception to his career’s Cold War thread was Warden’s final post as Canadian high commssioner to India. The primary security concern during that assignment was not a perceived threat of international communism, but of Sikh terrorism. The 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182 demonstrated the reality of the latter, but also revealed how slow Ottawa agencies had been to recognize and respond to that threat.
The same intense curiosity and intrepid spirit that took a young Bill Warden frequently into East Berlin during his student days in the 1950s, in what was then divided Germany, were no less present when he was a diplomat-spy three decades later. He travelled – often with his family – “the length and breadth” of Pakistan, “soaking up the images and the culture.” It was a part of the former British Empire that has “always been cloaked in mystery, intrigue and risk of violence.” Luckily for the Wardens, “we were there at the best of times when … most areas were accessible to those with an adventurous bent” (p. 170). Adventurous indeed. Warden’s warm and affable manner also helped him gain the trust of players in Pakistani politics not always on-side with one other – and to pick up information from all.
Military and intelligence specialists might question Canada sending diplomats into such places to gather not only political but also military intelligence. Intelligence cooperation was of course a vital part of Canada’s response to the Cold War. America was not always able to collect its own information, especially in so-called “denied areas” such as Cuba after it had closed its own embassy in Havana. There, and in other cases, allies like Canada agreed to help; it was a case of quid pro quo. But why send diplomats to gather military intelligence rather than military attachés? External Affairs was justifiably reluctant to send attachés to some countries; security services know their job is togather intelligence. Attachés thus might draw unwanted attention to Canada’s intelligence work in general.
Perhaps the most absorbing chapter of the memoir deals with a most unlikely co-resident of Havana in the late 1960s and early 1970s – Richard Pearce, a decoarated U.S. Army major who had defected with his young son to Cuba. It turned out Laine Warden was a distant relation of Pearce’s ex-wife. The story features an unusual cast of characters: Pearce’s mother-in-law as well as her family of Texas shipping millionaires; Pearce’s former commanding officer at Fort Dix; James Donovan, the lawyer who negotiated the relesase of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers; Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his companion, Celia Sanchez; and then-Congressman George H. W. Bush. Suffice to say, Bill Warden, himself more than a supporting actor in the story, ends up pondering what Pearce was really doing in Cuba.
This is a wonderful, fascinating, important book, told with sensitivity, a deft touch and a literary flourish. It ranks Bill Warden with the best of Canada’s diplomatic memoirists. It also makes him one of the few Canadian spies to reflect thoughtfully on this long-hidden aspect of Canadian policy. He does not “tell it all” but he tells us a great deal indeed we did not know.
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Professor (retired), University of Northern British Columbia
 John W. Graham, Whose Man in Havana? Adventures from the Far Side of Diplomacy (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2015). Available as a free, downloadable e-book at https://press.ucalgary.ca/books/9781552388242.