Police are charging a 53-year-old engineer with attempting to pass along classified Canadian shipbuilding techniques to China, a set of allegations that speaks to how private contractors can be possible backdoor threats to government secrets.
The RCMP-led probe known as "Project Seascape" resulted in the arrest of Qing Quentin Huang. Police accuse the Waterdown, Ont., man of attempting "to communicate to a foreign entity information that the government of Canada is taking measures to safeguard."
While police allege that Mr. Huang acted alone to take steps to illegally pass along material to China, there is no known allegation that any Chinese official agreed to take any material. In fact it is not clear what, if any, classified government material Mr. Huang could have had – his company says he had no direct access to any sensitive files.
Police have charged him with two counts of violating the Security of Information Act. "We believe he was planning to use plans, sketches and technical information relating to the naval fleet," said Sergeant Richard Rollings, an RCMP spokesman.
Since 2006, Mr. Huang has been working on marine designs for Lloyd's Register Canada Ltd., a subcontractor working on a federal program to build specialized Canadian Forces ships.
Police say they got a tip about Mr. Huang on Thursday and arrested him on Saturday – a remarkably quick turnaround for a Canadian criminal probe.
As alleged, the case is "a conspiracy of one – that makes it a lot easier," said Ray Boisvert, a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service official.
The speed of the arrest, he said, speaks to the fact that CSIS and the RCMP were likely working together against an individual they believed to be acting alone and not part of any broader network. The overarching goal would be to "stop the hemorrhaging" of any potential information leaks, Mr. Boisvert said.
The Mounties have thanked CSIS, among other agencies, for their assistance.
The Canadian government has embarked on a $33-billion program to modernize its navy. Most of the funds have been allocated for contracts with Irving Shipbuilding Inc. for new fleets of general-use military ships and Arctic boats. The latter contract will equip the Royal Canadian Navy with vessels that are capable of navigating through Arctic waters, with a better ability to break through ice.
Officials at Lloyd's Register suggest that the target of the alleged espionage was the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships project (AOPS). They add that Mr. Huang had had no direct access to any classified documents.
"We wonder what he might have been [allegedly] trying to pass on and where he might have received it," said Bud Streeter, President of Lloyd's Register Canada.
"The information that I have is what the RCMP have. We were asked to co-operate with this investigation on Thursday, and as the RCMP has indicated, we have done so," Mr. Streeter said. "We obviously are quite surprised, we're quite taken aback by this turn of events."
University of Calgary political science professor Rob Huebert, an expert on defence and navy matters, said the incident would be less disturbing if it involved only the AOPS vessels, given that they wouldn't have the combat systems associated with frigates or destroyers.
Last year, Canadian Forces naval intelligence officer Jeffrey Delisle got a 20-year sentence for selling military secrets to the Russian government. The case amounted to the first successful prosecution under Canada's Security of Information Act, and served as a wake-up call for Canada's military to step up security.
Countries such as China and Russia are known to be in the market for all manner of military and industrial secrets that could help dull the economic and military advantages held by the West. The United States frequently prosecutes military personnel and defence contractors for allegedly selling secrets to China, Russia and other nations.
Mr. Huang is to attend a bail hearing Wednesday.
With a report from Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa