Canada’s spy agency clandestinely watched a navy officer pass top secret information to Russia for months without briefing the RCMP – a previously unknown operation that raises questions about whether Jeffrey Delisle could have been arrested sooner.
The Canadian Press has learned that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation alerted the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to Delisle’s illicit dealings with Moscow well before the Mounties took on the file in December, 2011, and later brought him into custody.
CSIS ultimately decided not to transfer its thick Delisle dossier to the RCMP. The spy agency, acting on legal advice, opted to keep its investigation sealed for fear of exposing a trove of Canadian and U.S. secrets of the intelligence trade in open court proceedings.
In a bizarre twist, it fell to the FBI – not CSIS – to send a letter to the RCMP spelling out how a Canadian was pilfering extremely sensitive information, including highly classified U.S. material.
The RCMP had to start its own investigation of Delisle almost from scratch. The delay alarmed and frustrated Washington as the geyser of secrets continued to spew.
At one point the Americans, eager to see Delisle in handcuffs, sketched out a Plan B: luring the Canadian officer to the U.S. and arresting him themselves, perhaps during a stop-over en route to a Caribbean vacation.
The RCMP and CSIS are supposed to be able to “seamlessly hand off cases back and forth between them,” said intelligence historian Wesley Wark, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs.
He said “it is deeply troubling” if the system indeed broke down in the Delisle case over CSIS’s refusal to share its files or to bring the RCMP in at an early stage.
“I think that’s scandalous, in fact,” said Wark, who served as an expert witness at Delisle’s sentencing. “And it would be a matter, I think, for a judicial inquiry or certainly a serious parliamentary investigation.”
According to Delisle’s lawyer, it also flags important legal concerns about the government’s obligation to disclose all of the evidence against someone charged with breaching national security.
An investigation by The Canadian Press, drawing on multiple sources familiar with the Delisle case, reveals that CSIS was deeply involved in the file before the Mounties entered the picture. Several sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
The RCMP arrested Delisle, now 42, on Jan. 13, 2012, for violating the Security of Information Act. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison last February. Delisle had given secret material to Russia in exchange for upward of $110,000 over a period of more than four years.
Until now the official story – as revealed through the court record – has suggested the FBI first tipped Canadian authorities to Delisle’s relationship with the Russians on Dec. 2, 2011, via the letter to the RCMP.
But the story actually begins months earlier.
Senior CSIS officials were called to Washington where U.S. security personnel told them a navy officer in Halifax was receiving cash transfers from Russian agents. One of the paymasters was Mary Larkin, a known pseudonym used by Russian intelligence in running a U.S. spy ring – busted by the FBI in 2010 – that included the glamorous Anna Chapman and several others.
CSIS soon obtained court approval to begin electronic surveillance of Delisle.
Despondent over his failed marriage and nursing financial woes, Delisle decided in 2007 to commit “professional suicide,” as he would later put it, by walking into the Russian embassy in Ottawa and volunteering to offer up some of western intelligence’s most valuable secrets.
He spied for the Russians while working in sensitive posts at National Defence headquarters, including the military’s nerve centre, the Strategic Joint Staff, and at the office of the Chief of Defence Intelligence.
As a sub-lieutenant at the Trinity intelligence centre in Halifax, Delisle had access to a data bank of classified secrets shared by the Five Eyes community – Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.