Delisle spy story elicits shrugs from allies

The muted reaction to the Jeffrey Delisle spying case so far from some key Canadian allies is somewhat surprising given that secrets shared by several Western nations could have been compromised by the navy officer.

U.S., New Zealand officials say Canadian leaks are news to them

Canadian naval intelligence officer Jeffrey Paul Delisle, centre, is led out of court Monday. Delisle pleaded guilty under the Security of Information Act of passing secrets to a foreign entity. (CBC)

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department was blunt when asked about American reaction to Canadian Sub.-Lt. Jeffrey Delisle's guilty plea to spying charges, in a Halifax court Wednesday.

"This is news to me," was the response of Victoria Nuland, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key seemed equally baffled. "Never heard of the guy. He's not a New Zealander, is he?"

And Canada's Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews told The Canadian Press Thursday he doesn't believe Canada's reputation with its closest collaborators has been hurt at all.

The muted reaction of the U.S. and New Zealand is somewhat surprising, given that the countries all belong to the ECHELON network, a Western intelligence signals sharing group, also known as the Five Eyes. The other members are Australia, and the U.K.

According to a European Parliament report, ECHELON is capable of interception and content inspection of telephone calls, faxes, email and other data traffic globally through the interception of communication bearers including satellite transmission and microwave links. Secrets leaked by Delisle might have compromised any of the Five Eye countries.

Toews did say that after the Delisle incident there has been a review of of security measures that were in place at the time. Delisle began feeding the Russians information in 2007 and sent them 28 pages as late as January of this year.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, seen in this file photo, said Thursday he doesn't believe Canada's reputation with its closest collaborators has been hurt at all by navy Sub-Lt. Jeffery Paul Delisle's actions. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

"Given the extensive sharing of information that occurs between the Five Eyes community — Great Britain, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia — our agencies are always concerned when there is any compromise of security and we work very closely together," Toews said.

He added that Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security Secretary in the U.S. and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder "have never expressed anything other than a commitment to working with us in the future."

Not unique to Canada

Toews, speaking at a Calgary news conference, also said, "As you know, this is not a situation unique to Canada. We had very similar experiences like that in the United States."

Toews might have been referring to the WikiLeaks scandal in the U.S., when army private Bradley Manning allegedly downloaded reams of secret information and funneled it all to the secrets-sharing site. In the aftermath, the U.S. clamped down on computer security and some experts are surprised that Canada didn't follow suit. For more than a year after Manning was arrested in the U.S., Delisle was putting documents from a high-level security computer onto a USB thumb drive that he carried with him.

"After Bradley Manning, they sealed all the ports in most computers at the sensitive facilities, literally sealed them and put plugs in. It could be that the US is upset that the Canadians have not done that," said Robert Jervis, an intelligence expert at Columbia University and co-editor of the Security Studies Series. However, Jervis added, the highest level of security information is not downloadable, and not on a computer at all.

Jeffrey Richelson at the U.S. National Security Archive said that in the U.S., in the wake of the Manning scandal where information was downloaded to CDs, it's just not possible to download any more in security facilities.

"It's all hard drive, nothing that can be copied and removed."

Richelson said that experts in Canada have probably been going through everything Delisle touched, looking for any record they can reconstruct of what he had access to at HMCS Trinity, an intelligence centre in Halifax's naval dockyard where he worked.

It does seem that some members of the intelligence community may be rattled by the Delisle incident.

In a damage assessment read out at Delisle's court appearance, an official wrote, "Delisle put into jeopardy the identity of the confidential sources of information and the means by which the [Canadian Security Intelligence Service] collects information."

It was also said that the spy scandal caused "severe and irreparable damage."

Paul Buchanan, a former intelligence consultant to the U.S. government now living in New Zealand, told TV New Zealand in an interview, "Apparently he [Delisle] also passed on the methods of collection of the ECHELON network. For instance, that could be the positioning of the eavesdropping satellites so the Russians get a better idea of what the satellites are listening to. So the security breach was quite grievous."

Buchanan pointed out that in the WikiLeaks case in the U.S., Manning had only secret clearance, whereas Delisle's was top secret. "It makes the WikiLeaks scandal look kindergartenish in comparison ... this was secret compartmentalized information, eyes only, and all of it was passed to the Russians."

With files from The Canadian Press