Beyond the Headlines

The other Nova Scotia spy

Posted: Oct 10, 2012 1:48 PM ET Last Updated: Oct 10, 2012 1:48 PM ET
It's a rather small and infamous group, but navy Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Paul Delisle isn't the first Canadian to be caught spying for the Russians. He's not even the first one with connections to our province.
 
Delisle's decision to plead guilty to three espionage charges brought back memories of a spy story I covered almost 25 years ago.
 
It was June 1988. At the time, I was a reporter working for the CBC's The National in St. John's. My phone rang and when I answered, I received one of those anonymous tips you usually only see in the movies. The caller said I should get down to the courthouse. A Canadian had been arrested and charged with being a Soviet spy.
 
I thought it was a prank call. I mean really - a Russian spy in Newfoundland? Well, it wasn't a joke and what followed was a spy tale I won't soon forget.
 
Stephen Joseph Ratkai, 25, a Canadian who grew up in Nova Scotia and Hungary, had been caught in an elaborate double-agent scheme run by the U.S. military.
 
It started when a U.S. navy lieutenant named Donna Geiger walked on board a Soviet research vessel in St. John's harbour (those "research" vessels had long been suspected of doing more spying than scientific work) and announced she was ready to pass secrets to the Soviets.
 
Geiger, who was working at the top secret U-S Naval base in Argentia, Newfoundland, told the captain she was a disgruntled employee tired of being passed over in a "male-dominated" navy. Geiger even brought classified documents to prove she was serious. Two months later she was told to meet a contact in the parking lot of the Hotel Newfoundland in St. John's. She met her contact several times, exhanging information for cash.
 
Geiger was a double-agent and eventually Stephen Joseph Ratkai was arrested and charged with espionage. In February 1989, Ratkai pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison.
 
It's a story that could play a key role in determining how much time Jeffrey Delisle will spend in jail for his crimes. Lawyers and judges always look to past cases - precedents - in determining an appropriate sentence and Ratkai is one of the few Canadians to be convicted of spying.
 
There are, of course, substantial differences in the two cases.
 
Stephen Ratkai was a civilian: by all accounts a troubled young man looking for some excitement in his life. Sub-Lt. Delisle was a career navy man, someone with top level security clearance, a man our government trusted with some of its most sensitive secrets. A trust he willingly violated the day he walked into the Russian embassy looking for his 40 pieces of silver.
 
Stephen Ratkai was sentenced to nine years in jail for his foolhardy actions. It's quite likely Jeffrey Paul Delisle will be facing a much longer prison term for his.
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About the Author

Brian DuBreuil is a veteran journalist with CBC News. He has won two Gemini awards for his work, and neither involved dancing or singing on a reality show.

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