OTTAWA -- According to geek-laden lore, Canada's top-secret eavesdropping agency was once staffed by such a crew of oddball science nerds that one intelligence analyst cut her hair at her desk.
Another built a chicken-wire enclosure around his work area to keep other people away.
And there was a popular joke among the code-breakers and computer wizards of Communications Security Establishment Canada. How do you tell an extrovert at CSEC? He's the one looking at the tops of other people's shoes, not his own.
The more than 2,000 staffers of the electronic spy service headquartered in Ottawa's south end are generally forbidden from discussing their highly sensitive pursuit of foreign intelligence.
But one of CSEC's senior members opened the blinds a crack in an unpublicized speech a few years ago, providing a rare glimpse of the modern intelligence analyst at the shadowy agency.
The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the candid address under the Access to Information Act.
Though the May 2010 speech by CSEC signals intelligence chief Shelly Bruce was delivered to a quasi-public audience of intelligence officials and educators, the Defence Department, CSEC's parent department, fought to keep portions of it secret. Only a complaint to Canada's information ombudsman dislodged the complete text.
Bruce joined CSEC in 1989 after studying in France, Russia and Canada, graduating from the University of Toronto with a master's degree in Slavic language and literature. During almost two decades with the spy agency, she worked in intelligence collection and analysis, strategic planning and information-technology security.
Following a stint in the Privy Council Office, she returned to CSEC in June 2009 to head the SIGINT (signals intelligence-gathering) program.
The CSEC monitors foreign communications, from email messages and phone calls to faxes and satellite transmissions, for intelligence of interest to Canada.
The contemporary SIGINT analyst is neither narrow specialist nor generalist, Bruce told her audience at a downtown Ottawa hotel.
"He or she must be good at everything, a Renaissance man or woman. It's not enough that you know a rare language. You have to be a brilliant speaker, a competent Java coder, a master of social media, a social psychologist, a political scientist, a tactician, a statistician, a geospatial expert and an expert navigator of the bureaucracy," she said. "To be good at all of this, you have to be smart, smart, smart."
One-quarter of CSEC's analysts have an advanced degree. Whereas they used to come from political science, history, languages and other arts, half have degrees in technical subjects, especially computer science, software engineering or digital cartography.
Spying is no longer a man's world. Most of the agency's intelligence analysts are women, Bruce said. Many of its managers and the majority of its most senior executives are female.
According to Bruce, it's a far cry from the Cold War-era image of pipe-smoking men sifting through reams of intelligence intercepts.
-- The Canadian Press