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January 27, 2012

Tinker, tailor, soldier and spy

The arrest last week of a Canadian navy intelligence officer on charges of espionage has people wondering whether the Cold War ever ended.

Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Paul Delisle, 40, of Nova Scotia faces charges of breach of trust under the Security of Information Act, the first such charges to be laid under the statute adopted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He is alleged to have passed military secrets to a foreign government, which, though not stated by authorities, is reported to be Russia.

There are lots of intriguing angles to this tale of espionage ranging from why he (allegedly) did it to how he got caught to what secrets would be of interest to the Russians. Some answers may never be known or made public since it's possible Delisle will face trial behind closed doors, given the apparent risks to national security.

What we have learned about the suspect through media investigation since his arrest points to a financial rather than ideological motivation. (Of course, since the fall of the Iron Curtain — seems almost quaint now, that expression Winston Churchill coined — a fondness for communism has pretty much disappeared as a motivation for spying.) Delisle was apparently in persistent financial difficulty, even declaring bankruptcy at one point, trying to support a family of four children on a paltry army salary. He worked his way up the military ranks, getting ever closer to the inner circles of military intelligence. All the while, his marriage was falling apart, leaving him with sole custody of his three youngest children.

It was while he was working as a junior intelligence officer at National Defence HQ in Ottawa in 2007 that Delisle is alleged to have begun to have access to information that might have been of interest to the Russians. This access continued when he was posted to what is described as the "navy's top-secret Atlantic listening post" in Halifax, where he was arrested.

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