Skip to main content

Sub.-Lt. Jeffrey Paul Delisle leaves provincial court after pleading guilty to charges related to communicating information to a foreign entity, before his preliminary hearing in Halifax on Oct. 10, 2012.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Canada has deliberately avoided public condemnation of Russia in the Jeffrey Delisle spy case because the Harper government is mortified by the security breach and sees little benefit in drawing further attention to it, sources say.

"This is an embarrassment," said one person familiar with the Conservative government's thinking.

"The facts of this case don't lend themselves to a big smackdown."

Sub-Lieutenant Jeffrey Delisle, who pleaded guilty to spying for Russia on Wednesday, wasn't lured by Moscow into a life of espionage. The Royal Canadian Navy sailor volunteered to betray his country in exchange for about $3,000 a month.

To the chagrin of government security officials, SLt. Delisle was able to smuggle out Canadian and allied military secrets from protected facilities for more than four years.

Even on Friday – two days after the Canadian naval intelligence officer entered his guilty plea – a senior Harper cabinet minister ducked an opportunity to call out Moscow over the incident.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews on Friday begged off answering questions about Russia, saying the case is still before the courts.

Ottawa's silence regarding Russia dates all the way back to early 2012 when SLt. Delisle was arrested – and Canada quietly asked at least two Russian diplomats to leave Canadian soil, as The Globe and Mail reported earlier this year.

In total, six Russians were dropped from Ottawa's list of recognized foreign representatives in late January 2012; it's still unclear which of these envoys were kicked out by Canada and which left on planned departures.

The Harper government isn't shy about going public with harsh criticism of a country when it suits their purpose – such as when they expelled Iranian diplomats last month.

But the Delisle case underscores an intelligence breach that Ottawa would rather forget.

"The problem here is the guy walked into the Russian embassy and offered it up – and he walked out [of defence facilities] using a thumb drive," the source familiar with the Harper government's thinking said.

"This wasn't high-tech subterfuge. This wasn't somebody being blackmailed or offered massive sums of money. There's nothing to crow about here."

Wesley Wark, a professor with the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, says he believes the Harper government has mishandled the Delisle affair by not publicly speaking out against Russia, known for conducting aggressive intelligence-gathering around the world.

"Saying nothing is really an invitation to carry on and do more," Prof. Wark said.

He said he believes the Canadians may have been worried about how the Russians would respond.

Russia's ambassador to Canada on Friday did his best to play down the spying case.

"What you are talking about is very marginal," Ambassador Georgiy Mamedov told a questioner at a Speaker's Forum event at the Albany Club in downtown Toronto. "It will die away."

While the affair has caused an uproar in this country, Mr. Mamedov told his audience that Russian intelligence-gatherers may not be terribly interested in what Canada, at least, has to offer.

"With all due respect to Canada," he said, "it is not, believe me, the heart of our security concerns."

Asked repeatedly about the spying scandal, the ambassador joked, stonewalled and belittled the importance of the case in a post-Cold-War world.

He denied this week's revelations hurt the two countries' relationship.

Asked if he cared to expand on that judgment, he said, "No, you'll just have to take my word for it."

When asked why Russia spied on Canada, a country with which it is seeking closer ties, Mr. Mamedov parried with a question of his own: "Why does Canada spy on Russia?" He said it was important to get past this mentality of mutual suspicion.

"We are still living in the aftermath of the Cold War. And to change this psychology is difficult."