Follow live updates from the trial at the bottom of this story
A Canadian brigadier general is contradicting Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s assurances that this country’s intelligence-sharing relationships with allies remain unscathed in the wake of the Jeffrey Delisle spy affair.
Brig.-Gen Robert Williams, director general of military signals intelligence, testified for the Crown prosecutor Thursday in the sentencing trial for Sub-Lieutenant Delisle taking place in Halifax.
SLt. Delisle, a Canadian naval intelligence officer, has confessed to spying for Russia over 4 ½ years in exchange for nearly $72,000 and a court is now trying to determine his appropriate sentence in this extraordinary case.
On January 17, 2012, after the sailor was arrested, Mr. MacKay played down the impact of the betrayal, saying allies retain “full confidence in Canada.”
Brig.-Gen. Williams, who served in Afghanistan, said the military has assessed the consequences of SLt. Delisle’s betrayal as “exceptionally grave damage to the national interest of Canada.”
He sounded a much more uncertain note Wednesday on whether the spying has injured relations with allies.
He said a December 2012 follow up assessment found things may be worse than was first thought in a February 2012 “My conclusion at that point in the December assessment was that the damage is potentially far greater than we assessed in February at the early stages of our investigation.”
He acknowledged that allies haven’t outright informed Canada it will be cut off from information sharing but said it’s hard to tell what the impact on the relationship may be.
Brig.-Gen Williams was a witness called by the Crown at a two-day sentencing hearing for SLt. Delisle in a case that has embarrassed the Canadian government and hurt its standing with partner foreign governments.
The debate between the Crown prosecutor and the defence at this hearing turns on the question of how much damage was done to Canada and its allies.
Challenged by Mike Taylor, the defence lawyer for Mr. Delisle, the general noted the defence minister’s statement of assurance came early in the investigation before the military had more time to assess things.
“I am aware that Minister MacKay commented in early January in the early stages of our investigation where we didn’t know – and I don’t imagine either could he have known– the extent of the damage,” Brig.-Gen Williams said.
Asked if he was saying the Defence Minister was wrong, the general avoided the question but said Mr. MacKay would not have had more information than Forces intelligence experts at the time.
“I can’t speak for Mr. MacKay, sir, but I know what little we knew at that time when he made the statement in January, he wouldn’t have known more than us on the particular damages,” the general said.
Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand make up what’s called the Five Eyes community which shares intelligence data.
Brig.-Gen. Williams said it’s hard to discern if allies are reducing the volume of sharing.
“The information we receive from the Five Eyes community is not a finite number of documents,” the general said. He said there’s a potential that Canada could end up “receiving less” in some areas, he said. “We just don’t know.”
He said Mr. MacKay was further briefed on the damage from the Delisle affair in June 2012.
The 41-year-old SLt. Delisle has already admitted to two charges of “communicating with a foreign entity” under the act.
The maximum sentence for someone convicted of these offences is life in prison.
The Five Eyes community has boosted technical and security standards in the wake of the Delisle affair, Brig.-Gen. Williams said, and Canada has to meet these or lose access.
“Lack of compliance will result in termination of access to these top secret products,” he said.
SLt. Delisle’s defence lawyer, Mike Taylor, challenged the general’s description of the damage wrought by the Canadian spy.
Mr. Taylor suggested the military is assuming “the worst” but can’t prove exactly what SLt. Delisle passed to Russia.
Brig.-Gen. Williams said the espionage could harm “our ability to continue to get” top-secret documents from allies.
He said it could take some time to determine the full extent of the damage the naval officer’s spying has wrought.
Mr. Taylor challenged the general’s contention that Canada is suffering.