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Intelligence officer and ex-diplomat Richard Colvin, right, arrives at a commons special committee on Afghanistan hears witnesses on transfer of Afghan detainees on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick)
Intelligence officer and ex-diplomat Richard Colvin, right, arrives at a commons special committee on Afghanistan hears witnesses on transfer of Afghan detainees on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick)

Once the invisible man, now the centre of attention Add to ...

Strangers stop him on the street to shake his hand. Yesterday, the man who delivered the mail to his hotel room called him a hero.

But before Richard Colvin emerged as the high-profile whistleblower in Canada's detainee hearings - a label his friends say makes him uncomfortable - the British-born diplomat spent most of his career on the sidelines.

"Richard is a beta, not an alpha. He doesn't seek out the spotlight. He's never the guy you would notice in the room," said one long-time associate, who requested anonymity to speak frankly.

Mr. Colvin declined to be interviewed for a profile. However, his supporters sought to paint a portrait of him as a dedicated civil servant who is driven, but not necessarily personally ambitious.

On paper, his 15-year-long career seems almost haphazard. His postings have taken him to some of the more troubled corners of the world - including Gaza and Sri Lanka.

There have, however, been long pauses. He dabbled in journalism after he failed his first foreign-service exam, and traded fieldwork in Ramallah for a desk job in Calgary to be closer to a woman he was dating, Lori Bokenfohr, now serving as one of his lawyers.

By most accounts, Mr. Colvin never courted controversy. Asked what stood out about him, one former colleague replied: "His meticulous note-taking abilities."

Michael Semple, a former European Union official who served in Afghanistan at the same time as Mr. Colvin, said: "He is the opposite of flamboyant, which is why I am flabbergasted that he's being painted as a maverick. He's undramatic, decent, a good, solid person."

However, others suggested Mr. Colvin's time in Afghanistan, where he was a senior Foreign Affairs staffer for seventeen months, somehow changed him. One source suggested Mr. Colvin had "some private axe to grind" and felt other, less qualified people had leap-frogged over him in the foreign service.

Mr. Colvin, now 40, was born in a village near Coventry and lived there until the age of 16, when his family moved to Canada, settling near Waterdown, Ont. His father was a marketing executive for Massey Ferguson, a farm equipment manufacturer.

Mr. Colvin attended high school in Waterdown. His dreams of one day becoming a diplomat were apparently inspired by an uncle, who served in Britain's foreign service.

Mr. Colvin studied international relations and Russian language at the University of Toronto, graduating with distinction.

He applied to join the foreign service straight out of school, but failed the exam, and subsequently moved to Moscow, landing a job with USSR Business Reports, a weekly newspaper where he worked for a year as a reporter.

He returned to Canada, completing a masters of journalism at the University of Western Ontario in 1994, and graduated at the top of his class, obtaining a gold medal in recognition of his achievement.

He still, however, nurtured dreams of a career with Canada's foreign service. He took the exam for a second time in 1992 and aced it, ranking first out of 7,000 applicants.

His friends say Mr. Colvin was drawn to troubled places because craved the "intensity" of such postings.

He worked in Sri Lanka, Moscow, Ottawa and the Palestinian territories, mainly for the Canadian government.

On more than one occasion, he took jobs that didn't necessarily advance his career, but kept him on the road. "He seemed happy as a mid-level guy. He's not a careerist," one former colleague said.

He was married, briefly, to a Russian woman and took a job in Ottawa working on Canada-U.S. defence relations, a high-profile assignment in the wake of 9/11.

In 2002, he moved to Ramallah, where he served as head of a new political mission in the wake of Yasser Arafat's death.

His marriage failed, and he retuned to Canada in 2005, moving to Calgary to be closer to Ms. Bokenfohr, whom he had met in Moscow.

However, that relationship also floundered and Mr. Colvin was professionally bored, working on "long-range strategic planning" for foreign affairs.

He was on vacation in Whistler when he was offered a job in Afghanistan, a country he apparently knew nothing about.

Now, as he serves as deputy head of security and intelligence in Canada's Washington embassy, friends say he agreed to testify knowing it could be a career-ending move.

However, those close to him also say he is hoping the publicity surrounding the issue will shield him from reprisal.

He is said to be torn on whether he should remain in the foreign service, or "take some time off," according to one friend. "I don't think he came to the decision to testify lightly. He knows full well the potential consequences of what he is doing," she said.

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