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Wanted by military: Spy 'role players' to help train special forces on surveillance and counter-surveillance

National Post logo National Post 2020-01-02 Tom Blackwell
A Canadian flag sits on a members of Canadian forces that are leaving from CFB Trenton, in Trenton, Ont., on October 16, 2014. © THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg A Canadian flag sits on a members of Canadian forces that are leaving from CFB Trenton, in Trenton, Ont., on October 16, 2014.

The Department of National Defence is recruiting actors for a unique role: to be participants in real-life spy-vs-spy exercises.

The ministry issued an unusual tender recently, seeking “role players” to help train special-forces troops on the intricacies of surveillance and counter-surveillance in challenging urban environments.

The “request for supply arrangement” opens a rare window onto some of the specialized instruction provided to Canadian commandos, in this case more within the realm of intelligence work rather than battlefield tactics.

Some of the role players would conduct surveillance and be targets of it without talking to the trainees, others will try to “extract” clues in person-to-person verbal interaction, says the tender document.

“The operational environment is complex, dynamic and sometimes in unfamiliar international urban areas,” the tender indicates. “This requires realistic training scenarios to prepare the operators for the challenges they are likely to face.”

The military employs contractors for the work partly to ensure a more authentic experience. Compared to other military personnel, outside role players are less likely to be identified by the troops undergoing training, said Sue Beler, a spokeswoman for Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM). The command’s main units are the secretive Joint Task Force Two (JTF2) and Canadian Special Operations Regiment, plus the 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron and the Joint Incident Response Unit.

The surveillance training is run out of the Dwyer Hill Training Centre near Ottawa, home to the JTF2, but the instruction is not for any specific type of special forces members, said Beler.

The exercises are designed to prepare personnel for missions in overseas cities and to improve their ability to work “with enhanced situational awareness and a reduced profile,” she said.

National Defence releases little information about the elite special-operations units, though it is known they have served in world hotspots ranging from the Balkans in the 1990s to Afghanistan after 9/11 and present-day Iraq, where they recently taught Kurdish soldiers fighting ISIL.

Gen. Mike Rouleau, CANSOFCOM’s commanding officer, hinted at the need for surveillance training in a 2016 Toronto Star interview, saying that not all the special forces’ work involves “gunfire.”

“It is sending smart people into complex areas and being able to provide ground truth or information back so senior leadership can make better informed decisions,” Rouleau told the Star.

The tender calls for up to eight “non-verbal” role players for each training event who will conduct surveillance and be targets of surveillance both in vehicles and on foot. As many as another eight “verbal” players per event will interact with the soldiers to “extract or provide information cues.”

The exercises are slated to occur in cities across Canada, said Beler.

The document requests “qualified” role players, but U.S. defence contractors who have recently advertised for similar services are more specific about their needs.

One of them, North Carolina-based Telum Protection Corp., requires its role players to hold “active secret clearance” and have undergone a counterintelligence polygraph test, among other prerequisites.

The company, which provides training to intelligence and special-forces personnel in the U.S. military, hires experts in surveillance, who sometimes represent specific cultures or languages, said Alfredo R. Quiros, Telum’s CEO.

“What you’re looking for is to provide realism to the training,” he said in an interview. “Ultimately, it will better prepare your men and women for mission success and — here is the key word — survivability.”

Not all of the training involves cloak-and-dagger stuff; it could be about conducting a meeting with a source at a restaurant without drawing attention, or simply briefing a diplomat, said Quiros.

“You have a young captain who goes through all this training, and the first thing they have to do when they go to a foreign country is go to the embassy and they have to talk to the ambassador,” he said. “Why not include in the training, how to talk to an ambassador?”


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