Agent of Influence — Film Suggests CIA Out to Destroy Lester Pearson and his Liberal Government

Source: Calgary Herald / CanWest News Service
Date: March 29, 2003
By Jamie Portman

CIA was out to get Pearson, film says:

Plot centres on mysterious death of diplomat

The CTV network is about to unveil a controversial new movie that suggests the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was prepared to go to any lengths — even murder — four decades ago to destroy Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson and bring down his Liberal government.

Pearson’s offence?  He offended Washington by pursuing an independent foreign policy and by being too friendly toward the Soviets when the Cold War was at its peak.

The movie, Agent of Influence, is scheduled to premiere April 13 on CTV (Ch. 3) and threatens to lob another grenade into the already troubled terrain of Canada-U.S. relationships.

Ian Adams, who wrote the original 1999 book on which the film is based and co-authored the script with his son Riley, admits it contains parallels to the present situation, which sees Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in trouble with the Americans for refusing to bring Canada into the war against Iraq.

“They hoped to get Pearson because they were convinced he was a KGB agent himself,”

Adam told CanWest News Service.

“They saw his diplomatic activities in the United Nations and his opposition to the war in Vietnam as the activities of someone who was a Soviet agent or acting in the interests of the Soviet Union.  It’s exactly the same kind of thinking that’s going on today — and it’s somewhat eerie.”

The Alberta-Quebec co-production focuses on a troubling event in Cold War history — the mysterious 1964 death of Canadian diplomat John Watkins in a Montreal hotel room.  Watkins, a close friend of Pearson and former Canadian ambassador to Moscow, was picked up by RCMP special agents in Montreal and taken to a hotel room for interrogation.  A few days later, he was dead.

The official story was that he had died of a heart attack during a farewell dinner with friends in a Montreal restaurant before returning to Europe.

Adams thinks otherwise.  His thesis is that Watkins, who is portrayed in the movie by Christopher Plummer, became an innocent pawn in a plot to discredit Pearson.  Watkins himself was deemed a security risk by the Americans because of his homosexuality 1 and his access to the Kremlin’s inner circles, and the film speculates that the aim of his interrogation was to force a confession that he had been recruited by the KGB to influence Canadian foreign policy.

Adams, who has written several books on covert intelligence activities, was researching an earlier book when he began hearing

“whispers that Watkins had not died according to the official story.  These whispers came from former RCMP intelligence officers and a couple of people at the deputy minister level in the bureaucracy.”

Adams went to Quebec’s provincial archives to examine Watkins’s death certificate and recognized one of the witness signatures as that of an RCMP security officer.

“I recognized right away that he had not died among friends.  John Watkins was not the kind of man to spend his last day in Canada with RCMP officers.”

Adams then checked with the provincial coroner, who told him that the men who signed the certificate had not revealed their police connections.

“When you die in this country in police custody, you immediately get an inquest and an autopsy, and Watkins was denied both,” Adams points out.

After Adams published his initial findings in 1980, the Parti Québécois government swiftly ordered an inquest into Watkins’s 1964 death.  The RCMP refused to hand over the full report, claiming it would damage national security, but finally admitted Watkins had died under police interrogation in the Montreal hotel room and that he had not given in to Soviet blackmailing tactics and was not a traitor.  But Adams wasn’t satisfied, sensing Canadians had only heard part of the truth.  Watkins’s fate continued to haunt him.

“I carried the story around in my head for 20 years, gradually piecing it together.  It’s a fascinating story.  I couldn’t understand why they wanted to get to Watkins, and it was only after more digging and talking to more people that I realized they were really after Pearson and wanted to extract a confession from Watkins that would incriminate Pearson in some way.”

Adams concedes that portions of the story are speculative and stresses that apart from Watkins, all the characters are “fictional composites.”  But he says everything that happens in the movie is consistent with what he knows about the Central Intelligence Agency.

Among the more inflammatory ingredients: a vicious, homophobic CIA agent (Ted Whitthall) — who controls the interrogation and refuses medication to the angina-stricken Watkins; a Paris sequence involving the torture and murder of one of Watkins’s closest male friends.

“I’ve seen enough documentation about the way the CIA works around the world in various situations like that,” Adams says bluntly.

“Look at CIA activities around the world and this is the least of things you would accuse the CIA of doing.”

GRAPHIC: Photo: Courtesy, CTV; Christopher Plummer stars in Agent of Influence as Canadian diplomat John Watkins, who died mysteriously in a Montreal hotel room in 1964.

[Ed. NSIM] It was known by the FBI and indeed by the Un-American Activities Committee of the U.S. Congress, that Lester (aka “Mike”) Pearson was in fact a Soviet agent.  He was denounced in the U.S. McCarran hearings by former GRU (Soviet military intelligence) Elizabeth Bentley, well before the CIA (in this film portrayal) took a dislike to Pearson.

One wonders whether the FBI and the CIA were communicating.  One also wonders if the RCMP and the Crown were com­mu­ni­cat­ing at the time the FBI wrote to Canada’s national police to warn about Pearson, with a copy attached of Bentley’s testimony.

The FBI letter is reproduced in an FOI release of part of the anti-communist investigations into the Silvermaster file:

Lester B. Pearson, Soviet Espionage (File Description: HQ, Pearson L.; Subject: Silvermaster; File No. 65-56402; Vol. No. 151; Serials 3897-3945) Excerpt (1951)


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