January 27, 2012

Tinker, tailor, soldier and spy

PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — 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.

The Delisle case, it seems, is the first instance of a Canadian serviceman being charged for espionage, possibly dating back to World War II. That's not to say this country has been spy-free. Indeed, one of the most famous espionage scandals of the 20th century unravelled in Canada.

In September 1945, a Soviet cipher clerk named Igor Gouzenko walked into an Ottawa police station and, after an almost comic bit of confusion, handed over information that rocked the unsteady world of post-war politics.

Gouzenko, memorable to Canadians of a certain age for the pillowcase he would use to mask his identity in public, is called the man who started the Cold War, in the wake of the impact his intelligence had on relations between the West and the expanding Soviet empire.

For starters, Gouzenko's defection led to the exposure of a network of Soviet spies in Canada, the United States and Britain. It forced the infamous moles in MI6 (British counter-intelligence) to play an intensive game of defense but ultimately led to the downfall of Kim Philby and the like.

All this Russian spy business hits the news at the same time as the movie version of John LeCarre's Cold War thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" hits the screens. LeCarre — David Cornwell — was a MI6 agent in Germany whom Philby exposed. In turn, Philby is one of the double agents who inspired the plot of "Tinker Tailor."

The Delisle case may lack the drama and the same post-war context as the Igor Gouzenko affair or the fictionalized spy world of John LeCarre, but it does make us mindful there are still Russia spies amongst us.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at