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Russian spies using Canadian passports poses 'troubling threat': documents

A person presents their Canadian passport.

Tom England/iStockphoto/Tom England/iStockphoto

The Russian intelligence service's illegal use of the Canadian passport poses a "troubling threat" to the travel document's integrity, newly released federal memos warn.

Canada "strongly deplores" the exploitation of its passport by Russian agents to establish a spy ring in the United States, say the internal Foreign Affairs Department records.

But it seems Moscow's Cold War-style tactics, exposed last year by U.S. authorities, did little to chill relations with Ottawa.

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In fact, the embassy of the Russian Federation said Canadian officials didn't even raise the matter.

"There was no fuss about that," said embassy spokesman Dmitry Avdeev. "I did not know anything about it."

Foreign Affairs spokesman Jean-Francois Lacelle declined to discuss the matter, saying only that communication with other countries is confidential.

Last year 11 people — four of whom claimed to be Canadian — were indicted on charges of conspiring to act as secret agents in the United States on behalf of the SVR, the Russian Federation's successor to the notorious KGB.

Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, who lived together near Boston, admitted to being Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova. Patricia Mills of Arlington, Va., confessed she was actually Natalia Pereverzeva.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation said Moscow instructed Mr. Bezrukov and Ms. Vavilova to gather information on U.S. foreign policy in such areas as use of the Internet by terrorists, the military and Central Asia.

They apparently communicated with Russian spymasters through special computer software that embeds secret messages in images.

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Mr. Bezrukov cribbed the birth record of a baby with the surname Heathfield who died in Montreal at six weeks in early 1963, assuming his identity, the FBI said.

Mr. Bezrukov, Ms. Vavilova and Ms. Pereverzeva were among those sent back to Moscow after pleading guilty — part of a swap for prisoners in Russia.

Another man, travelling on a Canadian passport under the name Christopher Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus. But he skipped bail and disappeared.

Cypriot officials said last year that Mr. Metsos had assumed the identity of a dead five-year-old Canadian boy to obtain the passport.

Passport Canada promptly cancelled his travel document. But the agency said little at the time about the other three members of the spy ring posing as Canadians.

After more than a year, The Canadian Press obtained hundreds of pages of emails and memos about the spy caper from Foreign Affairs under the Access to Information Act.

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The records, heavily censored, show Passport Canada officials scrambled in June last year to dig out documentation related to the Russians using Canadian cover.

At Foreign Affairs, there was a series of urgent meetings and high-level briefings.

A late June 2010 memo noted then-trade minister Peter Van Loan was travelling to Moscow from July 3 to 9, apparently suggesting he might raise the matter.

"The critical issue for Canada is the threat that the actions of this alleged ring represent to the integrity of Canadian passports," said the note.

"Some precedents exist for diplomatic action in the case of Canadian passport fraud by foreign government agents, although none of these provides a precise parallel."

It cited the 1997 case of two Israeli Mossad agents using forged Canadian passports in an assassination attempt, as well as two prior episodes — in 1996 and 2006 — in which suspected SVR agents were arrested under national security certificates and deported to Russia.

In mid-July 2010, after the guilty pleas and prisoner swap crystallized events, a senior Foreign Affairs official took a harder line in a memo to deputy minister Morris Rosenberg.

"The alleged abuse of Canadian identity documents is a serious concern, on which Canada should take a firm stand," said the note.

But the memo also pointed out bilateral relations with Moscow had generally warmed.

"Canada and Russia have seen an important improvement in relations over the past 18 months, particularly in the areas of trade and investment and co-operation on the Arctic.

"Russia is likely to downplay this issue in order to minimize the impact on bilateral relations."

The memo recommended a diplomatic approach, including an exchange of views on the issue with the prime minister's national security adviser.

"We are deeply concerned by the allegations that four members of the Russian spy ring were operating under fraudulently obtained Canadian passports," added the memo. "Such actions pose a troubling threat to the integrity of Canadian documents and identity security."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he met with the 10 returning spies, even singing patriotic songs with them.

The event seemed to irk Canadian officials even more.

"Canada is aware of and strongly deplores the illegal actions undertaken by Russia's foreign intelligence agency," says a Foreign Affairs memo penned in late July 2010 after the singalong.

But it's unclear whether Canada ever voiced its concerns to Russian officials and, if it did, what came of any exchanges.

Ireland, on the other hand, publicly expelled a Russian diplomat after Moscow used six Irish citizens' identities to procure passports for members of the U.S. spy ring.

Then-foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon asked his department to closely monitor the Senate standing committee on foreign affairs to ensure there were "no surprises" on the issue at meetings.

The newly released documents make it clear the passport matter was "referred to the police for investigation of any violations of Canadian law."

Making a false or misleading statement for the purpose of obtaining a passport is a criminal offence carrying a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment.

But with the U.S.-sanctioned return to Russia of three of the agents who posed as Canadians, along with the disappearance of Mr. Metsos, no charges were ever laid.

Passport Canada refused to provide updates on the cases, citing the federal privacy law.

"The government takes action to address any cases of misuse or abuse of Canadian passports," spokeswoman Beatrice Fenelon said in a statement.

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