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Stephen Ratkai pleaded guilty to espionage in 1989.
Stephen Ratkai pleaded guilty to espionage in 1989.

HISTORY

An echo of espionage from more than 20 years ago Add to ...

Meet in her hotel room or no exchange, the U.S. double agent said.

For a few moments, Stephen Joseph Ratkai hesitated as the double agent, Lieutenant Donna Geiger, turned and walked away. Then he followed – and, just over an hour later, he was in custody, cuffed in the hallway of the Hotel Newfoundland as two plainclothes RCMP officers relieved him of a camera, a do-it-yourself film-developing kit and thousands of dollars in U.S. cash.

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In a St. John’s courtroom nine months later, on Feb. 6, 1989, Mr. Ratkai pleaded guilty to charges under Canada’s Official Secrets Act.

The case parallels that of Jeffrey Delisle, who pleaded guilty this week to charges under the Information Security Act. Both Sub-Lieutenant Delisle and Mr. Ratkai confessed to sneaking information from an East Coast base to a Cold War-era enemy, imperilling national security and international alliances. Both cases put Canada’s credibility as a security partner on the line.

The Ratkai case was the culmination of a seminal bit of spy-versus-spy teamwork. A young Canadian Security Intelligence Service, a team of U.S. naval intelligence officers and an RCMP team new to espionage cases like this collaborated in a way they never had before.

It could have gone very badly. “The challenges for surveillance were unprecedented: How do you do this without burning the operation?” asked Gary Bass, who was head of the RCMP national security investigation section at the time. “The RCMP certainly didn’t want to join in and then do something to ruin the operation.”

The successful surveillance sting gave Canada renewed intel stature and U.S. goodwill. It also laid the foundation for further co-operation between the two Canadian agencies. For Mr. Ratkai, it meant a swift end to a short-lived espionage career, followed by incarceration as turncoat in the country of his birth – and, ultimately, escape to obscurity overseas.

Stephen – or Istvan – Ratkai was torn between Canada and Hungary all his life.

Born near Antigonish, N.S., Mr. Ratkai was five years old when he watched his mother shoot his half-sister, then herself. His Hungarian-Canadian father, a cook at St. Francis Xavier University, brought his son to Budapest.

For the next two decades, Mr. Ratkai hopscotched the Atlantic. Canada was where he played soccer, finished high school – and tried, at 19, to join the Canadian Forces.

No luck. Mr. Ratkai said recruiters told him he wasn’t in good enough shape for the army, which he saw as a flimsy cover for discrimination. So he left. He studied chemical engineering in Budapest. And the next time he came to Canada, it was with different goals in mind: Soviet intelligence officers had recruited him to act as a messenger in their network.

He didn’t last long. His first mission was to collect technical documents from Lt. Geiger, a U.S. officer who had convinced Soviet intelligence that she had secrets to share.

Russian “research” ships were stationed near the Argentia naval base, a key site of the U.S. Navy’s SOSUS – an underwater surveillance system that tracked Soviet submarines’ soundwaves. The Russians wanted information on how this worked; Western authorities knew they were seeking it.

Enter Lt. Geiger. She met the Russians’ intermediary, Mr. Ratkai, on three occasions over the next 18 months – at St. John’s war memorial, the King Cod restaurant, in her car in a hotel parking lot. He called himself Michael and gave her about $2,000 for each packet of documents.

On June 11, 1988, outside the Hotel Newfoundland, Lt. Geiger – then several months pregnant – told Mr. Ratkai they had to meet in her hotel room. This was not part of his game plan, but he ultimately went.

Mr. Bass of the RCMP interviewed him in a holding cell the next day. “He was quite personable, and actually quite pleasant to deal with,” Mr. Bass recalled. “He knew he was in a difficult situation, and probably didn’t see the point in making it any worse.”

At Dorchester Penitentiary, Stephen Ratkai stood out. He was articulate, neat to the point of fastidiousness and clearly wanted little to do with his fellow prisoners. He charmed the nuns and played poker with the guards. Church group volunteers grew so close to him that two of them testified at his parole hearing.

Released on parole to a Moncton halfway house, Mr. Ratkai got a job as a bricklayer and became known as a chivalrous sweet-talker who cooked a mean ghoulash. His friends in Moncton say he liked Canada – and when he left for Budapest in 1993, they were sure he intended to return.

If Mr. Ratkai did come back to Canada, he kept it to himself. Friends tried to call him on New Year’s Eve, 1994, and got as far as a Hungarian operator. When Mr. Bass spoke with him over the phone a couple of years later, Mr. Ratkai was working in Budapest selling trucks.

The submarine-tracking technology this sting operation protected has been losing military significance for more than two decades. But the sound-detectors are still monitoring deep-sea creatures from the ocean floor off the Eastern seaboard: They listen for whale calls.

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