Canada’s Big Beta Spy Scandal
Canada is a very nice country, indeed one of the nicest in the world (I used to live there, I certify that), but not exactly … exciting. Considering how big a country and economy Canada is, globally speaking, not to mention its proximity to the United States, it’s amazing how little Our Neighbor to the North charts in American news.
The New Republic‘s former editor Michael Kinsley back in the 1980s came up with a real DC knee-slapper with what he termed the most boring headline in world history: “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” That was Kinsley’s first, and last, Canadian joke, since he abandoned the Potomac in the mid-1990s for Seattle and, like that other resident of the Pacific Northwest, Bigfoot, he’s not been reliably sighted since. But his humor struck a nerve because, let’s face it, Canada’s so nice and tranquil that it’s something of a snoozefest, newswise.
Sure, Canada has a military, in fact a rather respectable one these days under the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is the first resident of 24 Sussex Drive (“1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” in Canadian) in decades who thinks the country ought to have a real and properly funded military. Canada, on a per capita basis, has lost more killed in Afghanistan since 2002 than the U.S.
Canada has intelligence services too, even if nothing like the huge, sprawling, multi-headed interagency hydra of sixteen different organizations we call the Intelligence Community. Ottawa’s spy services generally keep a pretty low profile, and they are even less in the news than the Canadian military. Except when something really bad happens, like a major espionage scandal.
And Canada has just gotten hit by a whopper, by anyone’s standards. Perhaps they’re overdue, since except for a few big-in-Canada, yet ultimately backpage incidents over the years (burning down a barn used by Quebec separatists, failing to prevent Sikhs from blowing up a 747, etc.), espionage isn’t a big source of news in Canada. Arguably the Second Oldest Profession hasn’t been a headline there since 1945, when the Soviet code-clerk Igor Gouzenko jumped ship in Ottawa, causing consternation since the Canadians didn’t really quite know what to do with the defector.
Now Jeffrey Delisle has put espionage – his own – back on Canada’s front-burner, and the case is so bad that Ottawa’s close allies have taken notice. Ottawa has tried, unsuccessfully, to keep the case of Delisle, a junior officer in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) who was spying for Russia for five years before his arrest in January 2012, out of the papers, since it reveals a basic lack of security and counterintelligence awareness.
The damage, based on current information, appears to be enormous. Delisle passed everything he could get his hands on to Russian military intelligence (GRU), and he had his hands on a lot from where he sat in Halifax, at the RCN’s Trinity intelligence fusion center.
He passed a lot of Canadian information, including reporting from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the country’s domestic intelligence agency which has a small foreign intelligence (FI) mission (anomalously for a major Western democracy, Canada lacks an actual FI agency like CIA or SIS AKA “MI6”), as well as law enforcement intelligence from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), plus lots of political insider information from Ottawa.
A quick run-through of each Canadian agency’s damage assessment from the Delisle debacle tells the tale … CSIS: “severe and irreparable”; RCN Intelligence: “astronomical”; Department of National Defence (i.e. Canada’s Pentagon): “exceptionally grave.”
Last, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) assessed the damage as “high” which might be understating things, since CSE – don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of it, most Canadians haven’t either – is Ottawa’s crown jewel of intelligence, its signals intelligence (SIGINT) agency, equivalent to America’s National Security Agency.
In the SIGINT realm, what Delisle wrought appears to have terrible consequences, beyond the spook world. Thanks to his access to STONEGHOST and related databases where Anglosphere countries share intelligence seamlessly, the damage from this case is probably felt more severely in Washington and London than in Ottawa. Under the so-called Five Eyes system, which dates to the Second World War, the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and (mostly) New Zealand, cover the globe with SIGINT, and share most of the take with each other. Hence, as Delisle explained about what he betrayed, “It was never really Canadian stuff,” he told police, later adding, “There was American stuff, there was some British stuff, Australian stuff – it was everybody’s stuff.” Last week, after Delisle accepted a plea agreement admitting his guilt, the U.S. ambassador in Ottawa, David Jacobson, characterized the case as the loss of “a lot of highly classified material,” adding with consummate diplomatic tact, “That is obviously not good.”
It can be safely assumed that Delisle gave GRU the store on what Anglosphere SIGINT agencies knew abut Russia, which is always a lot – politics, military, economics. He appears to have betrayed a great deal of Canadian insider information too. True to form, GRU was most interested in – Delisle said they were “fixated on” – counterespionage data, i.e. finding Western spies in Russia, but thankfully that, at least, was something the junior officer could not access from his desk in Halifax.
As an espionage case, the Delisle affair is numbingly mundane; this one does not cry out for a screenplay. He walked into the Russian embassy in Ottawa in July 2007, offering his services to GRU, not out of hatred for his own country, nor for the desire for a Bondian lifestyle, not even for money, exactly. He was depressed because his wife was screwing around on him.
His career was stalled too: as Delisle is a diabetic he never deployed overseas nor, in sixteen years in the RCN, did he ever go to sea. No fast-tracker, he. His soon-to-be-ex-wife’s extracurricular activities left him feeling “so dead inside” that walking into the Russian embassy seemed like a not-totally-insane thing to do. In other words, this is another case of the sad plight of the beta male.
I’ve looked closely at a lot of spy cases, especially ones where an intelligence insider goes over to the other side, and Delisle is typical in that he was a “volunteer,” as the Russians say, meaning he went over of free will without coercion or even recruitment. He’s also typical in that his life was a complete and total mess. He didn’t even seem particularly interested in the money, since the Russians were only paying him $3,000 a month – a tiny sum compared to the damage he was causing.
Every month, Delisle simply downloaded information from Trinity’s antiquated computers and walked out with it, passing it to the Russians on a USB stick. As a onetime counterintelligence officer, I have to wonder how nobody noticed Delisle doing this, regularly for years, on very classified information systems. I also question how someone whose life was such a hot mess – personally, maritally, and financially – escaped security scrutiny for that long.
At least the Canadians caught him eventually and now the repair work, which promises to be vast, can commence. Ottawa has a lot of explaining to do to its closest allies, and a whole bunch of agencies have some really big damage assessments to complete. Score this one to GRU.
The Delisle case is a biggie in terms of intelligence losses, as big or bigger than the notorious case of the FBI’s Bob Hanssen, the sexual weirdo and devout Catholic who gave the store to the Russians in the 1990s. Delisle is arguably worse, since the international dimension here is large and important. He safely seems to be the most damaging traitor in Canadian history.
Jeffrey Delisle looks like a safe bet to go down as the Beta Spy, the anti-007. What else can you say about a diabetic, depressed cuckold who broke under RCMP interrogation when discussing his passion for videogames? His sentencing won’t be announced until 2013, but it’s a safe bet too that Delisle will have quite a few years behind bars to ponder his actions.