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Impact of Canadian Spy Case Resonates 10 Years Later

By Jay Heisler January 28, 2021

Ten years ago, a police raid occurred in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that would permanently change the way Canada deals with national security and intelligence — and send long-lasting ripples through its relations with major allies.

It was December 2011 when Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers accompanied by military authorities raided the house of Canadian navy officer Jeffrey Delisle, acting on a tip from authorities in the United States. Within weeks, Delisle had confessed to spying for Russia.

The arrest was a blow not only to Canada but also to several key allies. Delisle had been working at HMCS Trinity, a secretive intelligence facility in the Halifax naval dockyard that coordinates intelligence-sharing among a group of countries known as the Five Eyes: Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Ten years later, what has been learned? VOA talked to Canadian intelligence experts, local journalists and Canada's Department of National Defense to find out what steps were taken to prevent a recurrence.

Wesley Wark, an intelligence expert and frequent contributor to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), said the security breach led to short-term and long-term changes that are still being felt.

Security clearance

Wark told VOA that immediately after Delisle was caught, the facility in which he worked was "stripped apart and rebuilt" to make sure Delisle had not left behind any listening devices or compromised any of the computers.

Next, Wark said, the Canadian government tightened the process of gaining a security clearance and the monitoring of people with those clearances. Delisle had been allowed to have continued access to classified information, even though his security clearance had lapsed.

Had Delisle been reinvestigated for a renewed clearance, the red flags would have been obvious, even to a nonintelligence expert.

"Among the warning signs was that he had some issues around credit cards and credit debt," Wark said. "He actually had a government corporate credit card that he had drawn on and never repaid."

Wark added that Delisle had previously aroused the suspicion of Canadian border authorities upon returning from a trip to Brazil. Border guards noticed that Delisle was behaving suspiciously and was unable to explain why he was carrying a large amount of money.

Constant monitoring

Equally embarrassing for Canadian authorities was the ease with which Delisle sold out his country. According to media reports, he simply walked into the Russian Embassy in Ottawa three years before his arrest and offered to sell them top-secret classified information for $10,000. He was believed to have been in financial distress at the time.

Wark said there are now measures in place to keep an eye on anyone with a top-secret security clearance. These include "the requirement that people's habits are constantly monitored. Any changes in their circumstances, financial, domestic … constant monitoring of people with top-secret clearances."

Delisle was sentenced in 2013 to 18 years in prison on top of time served and was paroled six years later after having conducted himself as a model prisoner.

But he was not the first spy to be caught in Atlantic Canada.

Stephen Joseph Ratkai was arrested in Newfoundland in 1988 for spying for the Soviet Union as a result of a clever sting operation involving a female U.S. Navy intelligence officer.

The American had pretended to defect to the Soviets by dramatically boarding a Soviet research vessel docked in a Newfoundland harbor, claiming she was sick of being held back in a male-dominated military. The intelligence she gathered led to Ratkai's arrest.

Wark said it was after this event that the Five Eyes facility where Delisle worked was built.

Lingering resentment

Canada's Department of National Defense (DND) was also happy to speak with VOA about the Delisle case, although individual navy and intelligence personnel declined, as it is still considered a very sensitive topic in Nova Scotia.

"The Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defense take information security extremely seriously," DND spokesperson Jessica Lamirande said. "Cases such as this one have the potential to damage both the reputation of Canada and its ability to collaborate with international intelligence partners.

"A strong, sustainable information security program is essential to meeting the country's defense needs, and we will continue to assess and monitor systems to ensure our personnel, operations and capabilities are protected."

The subject also remains sensitive for many other residents of Halifax, which hosts an annual security forum that attracts world leaders, members of the U.S. Congress and international media.

In addition to the Five Eyes facility, the city is home to NATO facilities and numerous military installations, plus five international universities.

"Halifax is a navy town. Always has been," said former CBC reporter Rob Gordon. "People here have a deep connection to the navy and military. When Delisle was charged, it sent a shock wave through the city. And there was a certain amount of anger.

"The documents leaked included threat assessments to Canadian warships. That meant a brother in the navy or a father serving on ship in the Arabian Sea could be directly impacted by Delisle's betrayal.

"There is no real difference between civilians and navy folks here. His betrayal had the potential to impact thousands of households in Halifax."

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