It took a tip from the United States to kick-start the biggest Canadian counterespionage case in generations, after Ottawa security officials overlooked the red flags surrounding a trusted naval officer who was secretly a traitor.
The landmark federal prosecution of Jeffrey Delisle is a house built atop FBI foundations, according to new documents released Thursday, which show how police on both sides of the border scrambled last winter to stanch the long-term bleeding of state secrets.
Between 2007 and early 2012, Sub-Lieutenant Delisle had hemorrhaged intelligence from Canada and its closest allies to a Russian spy agency known as the GRU.
During his hidden life as a mole, the naval intelligence officer scoured through top-secret government databases at the behest of Moscow which, the new records show, used agents in Russia and in Ireland to wire him at least $71,817 over the years. Arrested last January in Halifax, where he was stationed, SLt. Delisle pleaded guilty to espionage-related charges this fall. His sentencing hearing is slated for January.
The origins of the criminal case have been kept murky – until now. Search-warrant materials were unsealed by the courts this week after the CBC fought for their disclosure.
“On Dec. 2, 2011, the RCMP received information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” the materials state. “Because of this information, the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team in Montreal opened an investigation…”
In that correspondence, FBI counterespionage sleuths in Washington specifically named SLt. Delisle as a suspected Russian mole. And assistant FBI director Frank Figliuzzi made a point of telling the RCMP that Moscow’s spies “recruit informants who have access to protected information belonging to the American government.”
How the FBI put together its own case is unexplained. Yet it took the Mounties just six weeks to convert the tip into criminal charges.
Detectives reaped reams of evidence after Dec. 23, the day a Halifax judge signed off on warrants allowing police to spy on SLt. Delisle’s every computer keystroke, phone conversation and credit-card transaction.
Prior to that, Canadian security agencies had logged a series of disturbing clues about SLt. Delisle’s potential for being corrupted.
Records show his Canadian Forces bosses cautioned the divorced father of four for racking up household debt on his corporate credit card. Yet no one questioned his continued “Level III” top-secret security clearance – which was in the process of being renewed at the time of his arrest, even though it should have expired on March 22, 2011.
And months before his arrest, SLt. Delisle was flagged as a suspicious traveller. On Sept. 22, 2011, federal guards at the Halifax airport grilled him after he returned home from abroad, while carrying thousands of dollars, including $6,400 (U.S.) in new $100 bills.
His explanation to the Canada Border Services Agency? SLt. Delisle said he had just used past gambling winnings to pay cash for a return flight to Rio de Janeiro, a whim of a vacation that he said he undertook after seeing a TV commercial about Brazil. The guards who searched his luggage found a handwritten note about Gawab, a Middle-Eastern Web-mail service, and a prepaid credit card issued out of Costa Rica.
The search warrant materials make no explicit reference to Canadian police following up on any of this. The Mounties say they pulled the CBSA report only after they were tipped by the FBI.
Hours after his arrest, SLt. Delisle confessed during interrogation. He told the RCMP he had actually travelled to Rio to meet a Russian handler to get paid money and accept new assignments. He admitted he had used e-mail “dead drops” on Gawab to illegally pass along state secrets.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected from an earlier version which misidentified SLt. Delisle as a soldier