5 plot lines in the Jeffrey Delisle navy spy case
When he was arrested in Halifax on a chilly Jan. 13 of this year, Jeffrey Delisle's socks were damp from helping his girlfriend move into his house. She had no idea what his military desk job really was. He didn't talk about it.
But to the Russians? No problem. He'd been selling them secrets for nearly five years, because he was "dead inside" after his wife betrayed him. She cheated on him in 2007. So the Russians didn't have to ensnare Delisle with some exotic blackmail or honey trap. He just walked into the embassy to hawk his wares.
That, in a nutshell, is the banal reality of a spy caper whose effect upon Canada's security interests is, according to CSIS, "severe and irreparable." As sensational as the damage may be, as a drama it's no threat to Ian Fleming's lurid tales of James Bond.
The Jeffrey Delisle story is more John Le Carré — one wretched shade of grey. No sexy double agents, no SMERSH, no Double-O licence to kill. Delisle was a divorced, diabetic naval sub-lieutenant, not fit enough to go to sea. Struggling with bills, he toiled over an antiquated computer at a base in Halifax. The computer even had a floppy drive! Remember those?
But sitting right next to that classified computer, Delisle had an unclassified one with a USB input. Transferring secrets to a thumb drive was a breeze. Out he walked, again and again, with a rich harvest of top-secret intelligence — from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia … "everybody's stuff," he called it.
And, today, Delisle awaits sentencing for selling secrets wholesale to the GRU, the Russian intelligence service.
From Russia by money order
A list of monthly payments to Jeffrey Delisle by his Russian handlers — in U.S. dollars:
Why did Delisle do it?
Delisle's motivation emerges quickly in the official transcript of Delisle's interview, still in his damp January socks, with a sympathetic Sgt. Jimmy Moffat of the RCMP. It was simple: Delisle explains that his wife's infidelity, back in 2007, made him do it:
Delisle: I do everything for them. They always come first, always. … I don't badmouth their mother, but she killed me … killed me to death. And I went out and I wanted to commit suicide … So I committed professional suicide. That's what I did, professional suicide. … I couldn't leave the children, so I committed professional suicide.
Soon, Delisle breaks down as he recalls offering his services to the Russian Embassy after discovering that his wife had cheated on him:
Delisle: (sobbing) I'm not a good man anymore.
It becomes clear that Delisle understood perfectly that he had made a fateful decision, and that there was no going back.
Delisle: I am mentally exhausted. I'm dead.
The actual business of spying, though, was devoid of drama. Using an account shared with his Russian handler on a free webmail site called Gawab, Delisle would paste his stolen secrets into a draft email, without sending it. But the Russians could read the draft. Simple!
Delisle: I started in 2007. It was just … get copies of whatever, put it on a stick, put it in a email, non-sending, a shared email account, paste. There you go. And then they would give me money.
'You cannot get it if it's not there'
An email message from Delisle's handler about his attempts to draw money from prepaid bank cards given to him by a Russian handler on a trip to Brazil:
What did the Russians want?
Delisle's Russian handlers, it seems, were mainly interested in learning the names of Western spies inside Russia, although, by Delisle's account, the pickings were slim. They also wanted to send him to Austria for technical training, so he could become a "pigeon," or courier for them once he left the Canadian military.
Delisle: They really wanted … W estern agents in Russia which we never had. Um … ah … anything related to their business they wanted. They didn't want technical. They didn't … it was mostly related to them and how their sources were com … being compromised, and that was it. … They wanted me to go to Austria this year for training … he said I'd be a pigeon. It means communicating with other agents within Canada, and they said that we'd be travelling within Canada.
And why $3,000 a month? That was easy: anything more would alert the federal government's tracking system for bank transactions, known as FINTRAC. The scheme worked fine until Delisle went down to Brazil to meet his Russian handler in September 2011. There, he received prepaid bank cards which did set off alarms with a Canada Customs agent when he returned.
Delisle: Three thousand dollars, those are the flat payment because it goes under FINTRAC. … and they kept sending me money … and it was never more than $3,000 until I went to Brazil and in Brazil they gave me $50,000 and I said I couldn't take $50,000. So they forced me to take the three cards … which was like $30,000 on the cards, and they gave me 10 … 10 grand. So, they said it was all … all good.
It wasn't all good. The customs officer took copies of the cards — and that may have been the clue that unravelled Delisle's scheme. But not yet. He continued to copy and paste his monthly quota of secrets for sale. No dead drops, no cloak, no dagger. Quite the reverse: when he was done, the USB key went into his son's Xbox.
Delisle: Copy, paste, copy, paste.
A tiny hint of drama…
Amid this ho-hum account of the spy's routine, there is only a hint of potential drama. What if Delisle were exposed? No problem: he would walk into any Russian mission with his code name:
Delisle: Uh … if I ever got caught hum … all I had to do was walk in, in any embassy, preferably not in Canada, and just say, "Alex Campbell," which was my tag … So … they set up a code word uh … for me to recognize another GRU agent. … I was like uh … I had to … "Did we … did I meet you at a jump show in Austria?" And I was [to] say, "No, it was in Ottawa," and that's how they confirmed identity. But being said, I was only — only six people knew who I was in the GRU.
There is also a hint that the Russians were interested in something of great interest to the Canadian government these days: trade with China. After Western agents, it seems, the next thing they wanted was intelligence on China and the energy business.
Delisle: They would be like, uh … priority No. 1, foreign agents need to know, two was energy sector government of Canada and uh … relations … they asked me if I had any uh … access to like uh … discussions for trade, energy sector, China like.
As for any misgivings about his betrayal of his country, well, that's not apparent. Instead, Delisle suggests that, heck, the whole spying business is rotten anyway:
Delisle: We spy on everybody. Everybody spies. It's uh … (laughs).
Delisle: And, and our Western values, you know it's uh … everybody spies and we spy on our friends and they spy on us and we hold hands smile and it's … it's hypocritical.
'I know it's going to come'
Delisle seemed unworried, too, about the risk of being caught — but not because he didn't think he would be. Rather, he thought it was inevitable — especially after that customs officer spotted his fistful of pre-paid bank cards. The Russians were spooked by that:
Delisle: They wanted me to go in sleep mode for the rest of the year because I told them about CBSA [Canada Border Services Agency] giving me … a run, a run through and they took the copies of the cards they had given me, I said. They said, "Sleep for a year." I'm like … I know it's going to come. I said, "All is good. All is good," and they started back up in the new year so.
And so it was that, from 2007 to 2012, Jeffrey Delisle just kept on copying and pasting:
Delisle: I would have my unclassified system here in the corner, and classified system here, copy, paste, move the disk over, stick the USB key in … and paste it on the stick.... I'll put the information on the unclassified system. It's cut from the disk, transfers right to the USB stick. Doesn't go on the system at all.
"Uh-hmm" seems about right. It all sounds so routine, so undramatic. Even the departure of Russian diplomats in the wake of Delisle's arrest was handled quietly — almost as though it were a normal rotation. Nothing to see here! Move along!
But perhaps, if there'd been just a little more drama — and a little more curiosity about where Delisle got his money — then this leaking gusher of top-secret allied intelligence would not have gone on, and on, and on, for nearly five years.